Theatre has never shifted more quickly and significantly as when COVID-19 led to the mass shutdown of public spaces and pushed artists to move to digital platforms.
Many theatres struggled to determine how to sustain their business and pay artists. One group quickly found a solution. PlayGround Zoom Fest—an offshoot of PlayGround’s annual New Works Festival in the Bay Area—is in the midst of a five week-long slate of virtual programming that pays over 140 artists, including performers and the creative teams.
Traditionally the New Works Festival features a slew of new productions, readings and workshops, talks, and special events to highlight up-and-coming or established artists and their developing theatrical pieces at Bay Area venues like Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Potrero Stage.
Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann never considered canceling the fest in light of the theatre shutdown and pandemic—especially because 2020 marks the 25th anniversay of the festival. Instead, moving quickly, organizers explored ways to continue PlayGround events digitally and still pay its performers and creative team, finding the answer in one of their partners from the past.
“We have a history with SAG-AFTRA going back now almost a decade,” said Kleinmann of the actors’ union. “We started working with them to adapt some of the short plays that we've been creating over many years into short films.”
Although unions outlined rules for rebroadcasting filmed stage productions, Kleinmann specifically sought terms that focused on wages for live streams of new works. Knowing that SAG-AFTRA specifically has an internet sub-unit in its union, the artistic director reached out for help, and they responded swiftly.
With an agreement in place, a lineup of workshops, readings, full productions, and talks came to fruition. Some of theatre’s leading voices in American Theatre are included this year, including Lauren Yee, Jonathan Spector, Aaron Loeb, Geetha Reddy, Kent Nicholson.
Highlights among the many offerings are three productions incorporating Zoom platform elements. First up, was Disbelief by Garret Jon Groenveld, which ran May 30 and 31; Genevieve Jessee’s The Rendering Cycle follows June 6 and 7; and the festival closes with Best of PlayGround 24, a collection of short plays seen in previous editions, June 13 and 14. None have been staged previously, but PlayGround intentionally avoids the term “world premiere” so that when the theatre shutdown ends, these works and their host venues can receive the designation with an in-person audience.
At the same time, these presentations are more than bare-boned, script-in-hand readings. Each incorporates the elements of a full-scale production, including costume design and sound design. To top it off, all of the presentations stream fully live.
Festival lighting designer Brittany Mellerson sent packages of LED and clip lights that she can control from her home and taught actors how to find their light in their spaces. “My favorite part about Zoom is the site-specific challenges I encounter within each performance’s space,” Mellerson says. “I used to make one or two lighting plots for a show—now I make zero and I still get to talk about light all day. I'm finding a new way to share what I love with the cast and we are all learning together—from the new electronics to the angles to the shape of the room, or the time of the day.”
PlayGround has also discovered the need for additional adjustments in the virtual theatre realm. Props used by more than one character are multiplied and sent to each performer's home, so that the prop can virtually pass from one character to another. Audiences react instantaneously using the chat function without disruption. It’s a shift in participation, as theatres prioritize silent murmurs or rounds of applause only at specific pauses within a play or musical. With a feature allowing performers and creative designers to mute, viewers can be vocal without being distracting.
“Occasionally someone will hear a line and it's just one of those beautiful lines that you just wish you could remember, so they write it down,” said Kleinmann. “They literally will write a phrase and just say, ‘perfect’ and they'll talk about that moment. Or they'll give the emoji symbol for the clapping hands.”
Public reception has been rapturous. Given that the festival used to be in a physical space with seating capacities, many more people have seen a PlayGround production this year than in the past.
“I didn't anticipate how powerful this was going to be for the audience,” said Kleinmann, who notices that accessibility has had the largest impact on the community. People who are blind or hard-of-hearing feel and increased ease-of-use.
It’s a new experience for everyone at PlayGround Zoom Fest, but the team has proven adaptable and the festival overall can serve as a model to theatres around the world.
To register for the sessions—most of which are free to watch—visit PlayGround-SF.org.