As members of the theatre community, we have all participated in readings. This is something we do, for rehearsal, for play development, and sometimes even as a final product. So, I have to ask myself why am I quite so elated by the Pandemic Play Reading series, and particularly with my viewing of HOT L BALTIMORE on Zoom.
I know I am thrilled to be reunited with colleagues. It has been many years since I have worked with Amy, Cristy, Ken and Matt. I am brought back to a time of intense creative focus on craft. I am reminded that I was constantly surrounded by folks who challenged and provoked me. Who witnessed my failures and successes as I honed my sensibilities and my ethic. I have missed that. In the Pandemic Play Series, I get to work across my experiences in time, and cherished colleagues from over the years and locations, such as Beverly, Michael, Doug, Alana and Joe have now all become virtual company members. I am still in awe.
I have not visited HOT L BALTIMORE since I was in a community theatre production on Long Island right out of undergrad in about 1985. My brother Philip (now the artistic director of COHO in Portland) played Paul, I played Jackie, and we drove an hour back and forth to rehearsal every night. Our director’s husband was Linda Lavin, which was pretty cool, we thought. She was quite stunning and also gracious. The actress who played April was about 20 years older than I, but we became close friends, my first such intergenerational friendship. The actress who played Susie was just slightly older, but also took me under her wing.
Hearing and seeing the performance last night, the minimal spectacle allowed me two circles of concentration–as Erin, in the most minimal of space, bravely created Susie’s goodby party, just as Susie herself proudly toasts herself with what little she has, I could see, in my mind’s eye the pink dress she would have been wearing from the earlier production, the cheap suitcases. The harsh stage light on Susie’s face. The light dimming as Erin turned off the camera.
I enjoyed the costumes and props, as each square of reality brought in some interest. My attention was drawn to people’s walls and the variety of lighting qualities without taking me from the dramatic action. The passing of cups and newspapers held a bit of magic, as well as a reminder of the actual distance. When Cristy as Millie told Paul that his grandfather was alive, with such gentleness–such relationship, when Kate as April coaxed Jamie into the final dance with seductive generosity and desperateness–I had to be wowed by the fact that these acting partners might never actually have been in the same room with each other.
I actually felt compelled to write this post because I am in another group which is grappling with teaching art and design online. I am struck that there are those in the group who are there to bemoan what it is, to count the days until the world is exactly as it was around February 25 or so (let’s not get into that too far..). Then there are those who make it work, who come up with fantastic ideas, who find that austerity and limitation actually spur them on to something greater. Someone in the group asked this morning “Is anyone finding anything at all that is actually BETTER online?” I thought about the way I viewed the staged reading last night compared to my experience with live staged readings.
My brain associates staged readings with music stands, binders, black curtains and black clothing. Players in a semi-circle, perhaps. It has its place. We will hold such events in the future. I don’t think Zoom readings are better or worse. But I know that the audience experience was different, and that I controlled at times, gallery and speaker view, which enabled me to focus on what I wanted to see in any given moment. I held many circles of attention at once, I have to say in a different way than I do when I sit in a theater.
At the close of the play, a conversation emerged about the respite from isolation in performing the work, alongside the themes of isolation in the play. In the end, no one was onstage or offstage. In the end, the performers and audience were one.