The River Company’s latest performance, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” represents its next step toward making community theater available to Lincoln County despite COVID-19.
The production was conceived by director Nick Azzaretti in 2020 while participating in a Zoom Shakespeare group. The group did a read through of Wilde’s play and Azzaretti decided he wanted to take on the plum role of Lady Bracknell.
He put out an open call for performers and gathered a troupe of players from Damariscotta and Boothbay Harbor to Los Angeles and New York.
The River Company had experimented with bare bones Zoom productions, but Azzaretti wanted to create a slightly more cinematic experience by adding the trappings of live theater, costumes and sets and interaction between performers.
Christine Andersen was the producer, facilitating the logistics of scheduling, and working to ensure the consistency of costumes and props across locations.
Andersen said, “There’s been a learning curve and a progression you can see watching the company’s Zoom productions over the course of the last year.”
The directors and actors and editors who volunteer their time are learning what works. “It’s not just words on a page; it’s creating a production, making words on a page 3-dimensional,” Andersen said.
“We all wanted to keep the theater going during the pandemic,” she added. “We appreciate Zoom making it possible. It’s not like it was for the previous 12 years, but it gives us a platform and helps us to keep that creative thing going. I’m always going to prefer live theater. But I’m glad we have Zoom.”
The ambitious production was not without its obstacles. Everybody had different cameras, different microphones. They were acting in different rooms with different lighting and audio capabilities. Color tones were different. Internet communication was imperfect. Glitches were common.
“Working with Zoom is tricky. You want to cut between gallery view and speaker view and you need to find just the right place to cut to have the right pacing and the right feel,” said editor Mike Lee.
Actors had challenges, too. “You don’t get to look people in their eyes,’” said Michael Hovance, who played John Worthing. And he missed feeding off the energy of an audience.
And the production had to work around the bedtime of Soren and Emily Barker’s young son so they could be free to inhabit the roles of Algernon Moncrieff and Cecily Cardew without a child in their lap.
And then there were the boxes.
Zoom, by its nature, is made up of separated grids. The actors had to emote across the defined borders of those boxes, backgrounds had to be aligned, action had to flow from box to box.
They found ways around many of those obstacles. The use of green screens allowed them to share backgrounds when the action called for them to be in the same room. The two central couples were played by real-life couples so that they could share one camera and inhabit one box together.
Andersen found two similar satchels that could be passed from a screen in Los Angeles to a screen in Damariscotta.
Azzaretti standardized the cucumber sandwiches through three locations, and physically mailed the same Pepperidge Farm bread to every home.
They took photos of the set for Algernon’s morning room and aligned them across screens to get the feel of being in the same space from different angles. They looked for opportunities for aesthetic consistency throughout the multiple locations and used high-definition photos as backgrounds to combat Zoom’s less than impressive video quality.
Scenes were recorded simultaneously so that the actors could react in real time to each other’s performances. Azzaretti made sure he captured close-up shots throughout so he could use them to break up the grid. It was his aim to craft “a cinematic experience of video production, as opposed to a Zoom show.”
Ellie Busby who played Miss Prism said, “It was so much fun to get to do the work again, even in such a strange way at such odd times with people I wasn’t in the room with. I think that the interaction between people was wonderful and the chemistry was great. It was amazing to be able to do that on a screen.”
Lee took on the challenge of editing the two-hour production using Apple’s iMovie editing software, blending takes, aligning backgrounds, working to make the hand offs of props as realistic as possible when, for example, a diary is handed from Soren Barker playing Algernon in Boothbay Harbor to Michael Hovance playing Jack in Los Angeles.
“Everything we do, especially when we write or record something leaves a trail for others to see how we got here. Its part of the story of the pandemic,” said Lee.
Hovance, who plays Jack, is an alumnus of Lincoln Academy now living in Los Angeles whose first performance was on a Lincoln County stage when he was a student.
While he has a full-time day job now, Hovance has performed in plays in London and New York and worked in movies and television productions in Los Angeles.
“But I’m more of a stage guy,” he said. “And L.A. is not a stage town.
“I’ve waited for years to come back to Damariscotta and do another show,” he said. Being a part of this production has allowed him to perform here once again, albeit virtually.
“Damariscotta is still home in a way. I loved it when I lived there, I still love it,” he said. When he was younger, Hovance was all about Shakespearean tragedies.
“As I’m older, especially last year comedies are important. We need to laugh. The production of ‘Earnest’ was a light in the dark for me,” he said.
The production and videos of other River Company productions are available at bit.ly/396iwRd.