Not Your Typical Zoom!
UT Department of Theatre to Stream
Unique Revisit of “The Open Hand”
Two different performances. Two different formats. Done four years apart! Combining archival video capture from the original production with current Zoom techniques, the UT Theatre Department will stream a new and unique version of “The Open Hand” on Friday, September 25th at 7:30 pm. It will be followed by a live talkback with the cast, director, and playwright. The show, which is for mature audiences, is free of charge with contributions welcome.
Creating this new version of “The Open Hand,” a satire on our discomfort with generosity, began early in the CoVid pandemic, March 2020, when playwright Rob Caisley invited the original cast to a “Zoom-Together” session to discuss doing an impromptu reading of his play.
“It struck me as a great way to spend time together, as we were all holed up in our homes in various parts of the world. Now, four years older, the cast was in the stage of life that Rob’s characters are in: young adults, struggling with careers, relationships, faith in the future,” said Director Calvin MacLean.
At the session, MacLean suggested re-rehearsing the play, recording the Zoom reading, and editing that recording with the archival video capture of the original 2016 stage production.
All plays are captured for archival purposes, but those recordings are never designed for public view. They are usually a wide angle shot from the back of the house so understudies can be put into the show, or so the stage manager and director have all the details about how the play was pieced together if the production is to be remounted at a later date. Using archival footage at all, or in this manner, is quite unusual.
“It was a hair-brained idea, but the challenge was interesting: how to harmonize two very different performances, in different formats, done four years apart,” MacLean said.
MacLean, Caisley, UT Theatre Sound/Video Editor Joe Payne, and the cast considered all the issues involved in realizing this new production together: costume facsimiles were discussed, similar props were found so that it appeared that one actor in New York could “exchange” an object with another actor in Chicago. Or Melbourne! Most important, the projected backgrounds used to indicate a scene’s location in a restaurant, or park, or apartment in the stage production were digitally transferred to each actor’s computer so that backgrounds in the Zoom reading were the same.
Payne recorded the Zoom reading in gallery view so the group could always see each performance and reaction as though they were in the same room. He then cropped the recording to into individual actors, allowing each performance to be manipulated independently.
Once each scene in the Zoom reading was recorded, Payne and MacLean began editing. During some of May and most of June and July, they experimented with different “takes” of the Zoom recordings, inserting the Zoom “close-ups” with the wide angle archival capture of the stage production.
Soon it became apparent that harmonizing the two different sound qualities was as important as the visuals, as they tried to make each transition from Zoom reading to archival video capture (and back again) as graceful and as informative of the story as they could.
“To say that Zoom is an imperfect medium is putting it lightly. It is fraught with glitches, delays, and poor audio, but it is the easiest method for performers to be connected in real time. We never wanted to hide the two mediums as our source material. We wanted to capitalize on them,” Payne said.
The editing style reflects the inherent qualities of Zoom video blocks and the natural sound and distant view of an archival video recording.
“What emerged was something entirely new — to us at least. Not exactly a movie, or like a video recording of a stage performance: but something that tells the story and captures the humor and insight of Rob’s play in a unique presentation,” said MacLean.
The original 2016 production of “The Open Hand” was the first CBT-commissioned play written specifically for MFA Acting students. In 2013, Caisley met with the MFA Acting students in their first year of study to discuss ideas and research issues associated with a play on the theme of generosity. He then returned to his home in Idaho to write a draft of the new play based on those discussions and his familiarity with the talents of the students. MacLean then worked with Caisley over the next six months, reading scenes, discussing possible events, and suggesting certain casting possibilities.
Caisley returned to UT’s campus in 2014 to read the draft and adjust it based on the responses of the students. Finally, by the summer of 2015 a production draft was submitted for MacLean to begin work with the designers who also are students in the MFA Design program. Caisley also was in residence at the CBT during the rehearsal process.
According to MacLean, the goal of the commission was to provide the students with the experience of designing the first production, of being the original cast, and of finding much of themselves in the characters, action, and stage environment of a new play.
Calvin MacLean (Director of Original Stage and Video Productions) is the CBT Producing Artistic Director and UT Theatre Department Head. CBT productions include: “The Threepenny Opera,” “A Flea in Her Ear,” “The Life of Galileo,” “The Secret Rapture,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (with Dale Dickey), “Amadeus” (with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra), “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Sweeney Todd” (with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and Dale Dickey), and “Our Country’s Good.”
Playwright Robert Caisley is Professor of Theatre and Head of Dramatic Writing at the University of Idaho. His plays have been performed across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The cast includes: Melissa David (Freya); Kyle Maxwell (Todd); Lindsay Nance (Allison); Roderick Peeples (David Nathan Bright); and Steve Sherman (Jack).
The production creative team includes: Joe Payne (Zoom/Archive/Reading Video Editor); Tannis Kapell (Lighting Design); Nevena Prodanovic (Scenic/Media Design); Marianne Custer (Costume Design); Roderick Peeples (Sound Design); and Alex Ross (Stage Manager).