The Connecticut Repertory Theatre will begin its 2020-21 season with two online productions – a live-streamed presentation of Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Men on Boats,” from Thursday, Oct. 8 through Sunday, Oct. 18, and CRT’s first-ever radio play, a pre-recorded adaptation of the classic Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life” from Thursday, Nov. 12 through Saturday, Nov. 21.
With campus performance venues re-purposed this semester for academic classes to maintain social distancing protocols, the CRT faculty and staff utilized some of the guidelines of improvisational theater to develop its fall season – don’t deny, and don’t ask open-ended questions.
“The canceling of the summer season was a quick decision that we had to make, given the nature of what was going on and not knowing what was happening with the virus,” says Mike Beasley, interim managing director of CRT. “We had to tread water regarding the fall because we had to figure out what was going to happen. The faculty made the decision to move online. The questions became: What’s the content going to be and what are we going to do with the season? How do we stay true to ourselves and remain an open platform for ideas and social issues?”
The cast of “Men on Boats” was in rehearsal at CRT, its sets and costumes in production, when the pandemic caused a national cancellation of most in-person activities, including those at arts and entertainment events. The adventure dramedy is based on the 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers led by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran and friend of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Beasley says after canceling the spring production, updated licensing and other contractual issues needed to be resolved, as well as adjustments in recasting both students and Actors Equity theater professionals. With the move to production online, there were many technical issues that also needed to be understood and addressed by CRT’s production team, led by production stage manager Tom Kosis.
“It was a challenge, and we did it in a very short amount of time. It certainly was unlike any experience I’ve had thus far,” he says. “The staff has been outstanding, really excellent. They’re open to constantly changing corners to make sure that the best decisions are made. The dean’s office in the School of Fine Arts is extremely supportive of us in this process.”
Beth Gardiner, director for “Men on Boats,” has served as a director, dramaturg, assistant director, and educator at theaters across the country. She is co-founder of Three Day Hangover, a New York City theater company that creates fresh, unexpected, immersive productions of classic plays in bars and other not-usually-theater spaces.
“This truly is a weird new hybrid between theater and film acting and production techniques. We’re trying to combine the liveness of theater with the editing and broadcasting tools of film, which is an entirely new way to think about storytelling,” Gardiner says. “Most of my career has been on the stage, but I was an associate producer and assistant director on a Web series. I got some great experience behind the camera. In graduate school [MFA program at the University of California-Irvine] I got a really good basic understanding of film theory and how films and television are made. I have done other projects on film.”
She says photos of the previously created set will serve as background images for the virtual production, which will be presented via the Zoom platform, which allows users to post background images during virtual meetings. Props for the stage production can easily move out of the actor’s frame, avoiding the sorts of onstage transitions normally necessary.
Gardiner says that, unlike a live television performance with the actors performing together on the same stage, the CRT actors will be performing from remote locations, essentially working much like puppeteers who view television monitors while working their puppets in front of a camera.
“We rehearse in such a way that they can see each other by looking into the camera and looking at their screens and seeing what their acting partners are doing and reacting in real time,” she says. “Then, in order to communicate that story to an audience, they have to essentially face away from their screens and face to the right or the left, and pretend that they’re facing their scene partner, the person they’re talking to. It’s a very different way of thinking about staging a play. Usually, you’re trying to create these connections and the easiest and most fundamental way to create connections between actors is through eye contact. We just we don’t often have that in this production. I think it’s really brave of these actors in this company to take this on. One of the things I was most excited about is how to make a truly live performance. Any number of things could happen and that makes live theater so magical. You get the risk that something could be different each night.”
In addition to the technical challenges of the CRT production of “Men in Boats,” there is also the intentional casting of an all-female cast to tell the story of a historic accomplishment by men via a direct request in the 2015 script by the playwright, Backhaus, who Gardiner notes wants the audience to think about contemporary issues.
“The play has some complex, thoughtful, and very relevant conversations about history, representation and the voices that we hear in our country’s mythology in our own current narrative,” she says. “It’s also really funny and it’s an adventure tale. It’s got both sides of the coin and will be both entertaining and thought provoking.”
The “Men on Boats” cast is led by Anaseini Katoa and Margaret Ivey, who each have dual roles in the production. Katoa is a veteran of the Silicon Valley Shakespeare Theatre, Tabard Theatre Company, and Renegade Theatre Experiment. Ivey has been seen on television, on “Madame Secretary” and HBO’s “Succession,” and in a variety of regional theater productions including the Cincinnati Playhouse and Milwaukee Rep.
Current students and recent alumna in the cast include Graceann Brooks ’21 SFA, Alex Campbell ’20 MFA, Camille Fortin ’20 SFA, Emma Joy Hill ’19 SFA, April Lichtman ’21 SFA, Lily Ling ’18 SFA, Pearl Matteson ‘19 SFA and Jasmine Smith ’21 CLAS.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” was adapted by Philip Grecian and will be directed by Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer, assistant professor of voice, speech, and dialects. The pre-recorded performance will be available for viewing via Zoom.
For more information about the 2020-21 CRT season, and to purchase tickets, visit CRT’s website.