patrick nims

Zooming into a new theater

Director Patrick Nims, who moved to Portland just in time for the pandemic to shut down in-person performances, blazes a trail in live video theater

Patrick Nims was ready for a new start. After a three-decade theater career in the Bay Area, where he co-founded Marin Summer Theater, he and his wife, Marina — now empty nesters — were seeking a smaller city that was easier to get around. After auditioning a few California possibilities, in spring 2018 they moved to Portland, where their oldest son was attending Portland State University. 

Like many other newcomer artists, Nims found the city’s theater scene open to new arrivals, especially those with a track record in directing at various theaters. He reached out to several figures in the local theater community, and coffee dates led to promising opportunities with Stumptown Stages (where he’s now resident director), Beaverton Civic Theatre, and Clackamas Repertory. As last spring was about to blossom anew, so was his theater career.

Then came the coronavirus.

With live theater in suspended animation, Nims turned, like so many others, to Zoom, the online meeting platform that quickly became 2020’s second-most ubiquitous viral phenomenon. He’d used the technology in virtual meetings, so he realized — before almost anyone else in American theater — that the online platform offered real possibilities for making theater. 

When Zoom introduced its virtual backgrounds feature last year, that made it possible to create apparent sets. And the fact that Zoom allows audience members to turn on their microphones and provide instant feedback — laughs, applause — to performers — could help ameliorate the canned feeling of recorded online theater, and allow plays to happen live, in real time — a critical element of theater to Nims. He decided to give live video theater (LVT) a try. He founded his own company — named Zoom Theatre, of course, though it’s in no way connected to Zoom Communications, which makes the app — and embarked on another journey, much less certain than the one that had carried him a few hundred miles north. Now he’d be creating an entirely new form of theater production.

Jesse Lumb and GiGi Buddie in Zoom Theatre’s Enter Your Sleep.

Since then, Zoom and other virtual platforms have become — for better or worse — the main ways to experience live theater, though onscreen instead of in person. Nims has now produced nine fully staged live shows to a live audience– not staged readings or webcasts of previously recorded performances — of steadily increasing complexity, with more coming this year. And he’s learned plenty of lessons that could benefit other live video thespians and theater fans alike.

“The platform is not perfect and is fraught with issues,” he wrote in a blog post, but “I can also testify to the creative joy and satisfaction I have experienced working with brilliant actors, designers and crew to bring exciting, thought-provoking scripts alive for our audience.”