Even in a Pandemic, Local Theater Shall PersistMar 01, 2021 02:26PM ● By Brendan Zimmerman
The simple joys of the theater, from being part of a live audience to witnessing the dramatic energy of a performance come alive before your eyes have been taken away in the last year. And for Roundabout Productions, a local nonprofit theater group, the challenge of adapting theater to a virtual audience has been profound.
Founded in 2016 by Norfolk resident Lori Beck, Roundabout Productions invites area residents to fulfill their love of theater with local performances put on throughout the year. Past productions have included classics such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”
In particular, it was her love of the Dickens classic that inspired Beck to form Roundabout Productions. After stepping foot in the Norfolk Grange one day, she was inspired to put on a production of the holiday classic in that space, feeling that the acoustics of the room were perfect for it.
But now, the pandemic has taken the normal stresses of staging a play and exacerbated them. New challenges like finding a way to involve the audience in the emotion of a performance or staging the movement of the actors have become harder.
“It was a tough year,” said Beck. “It was a tough year for everybody, especially for performing arts, which just took a huge hit.”
The group was a week away from opening their first show of 2020 at their new venue, Coelho Middle School in Attleboro, when the lockdown began. Their halted production was put up as a live stream on Facebook, which made them realize that they could adjust to virtual productions.
Soon enough, they were able to create a better system to adapt their productions for the winter season.
The solution for Roundabout Productions has been to have the actors call into one Zoom meeting (everyone is calling in from separate locations of course), and to perform the play through Zoom. This virtual meeting is then broadcast as a live stream on YouTube, where people can watch the play in real time.
The group uses different backgrounds to match the intended set in each scene. Sound design has been another challenge, especially for last year’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” Using an app called BandLab, the group was able to layer vocal tracks on top of each other to create a choral effect.
Though virtual productions are limited in function, these methods have still been able to capture the feeling of a live performance for viewers. Still, Beck hopes that as vaccinations become more available in the coming months, the group will be able to share a stage for virtual or in-person productions.
Interestingly, some of the limitations of a virtual production have provided new opportunities for the actors to grow. With the challenge of filling a screen, there is now a larger emphasis on facial expressions, something that creates more of a film environment compared to the traditional stage.
In another unexpected bonus, a virtual environment has allowed for more people from different locations to get involved. Though most actors are from local towns like Norfolk, Wrentham, and Franklin, Beck mentioned that they actually have an actor from California that’s been able to participate virtually in “A Christmas Carol” and their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.”
Even with all these challenges, feedback has been positive from the community. According to Beck, they’ve had anywhere between 50 to 120 people watching the live streams at any one time.
Donations have been accepted for previous performances (the proceeds go to helping secure the rights for future productions), but Beck mentioned that the group is trying to implement a digital ticket price of $5 for future shows. This ticketing system is still in the works, however.
The last year has been rough but the future is looking bright for Roundabout Productions. Their next show is a production of “God of Carnage,” a dark comedy, with shows streaming on YouTube on March 25 and March 26.
“The plot is there are two sets of parents, and there’s been a fight on the playground. These parents get together to iron out their differences, but you watch as these four grownups become more and more like children as they fight,” said Beck.
And on the group’s wish list?
“Since day one, we’ve wanted to put on a musical,” said Beck.
With the pandemic, it will be harder to put together a production of a musical since it demands a full stage. But they have hopes to eventually pull it off one day, with dream productions including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Be More Chill.”
Auditions for the upcoming production of “God of Carnage” are over, but last-minute auditions for their June production of “The Comedy of Errors” are still being accepted. For more information on the group, auditions, and their upcoming shows, check out roundaboutproductions.com.