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.”





The primary requirement for making theater — monologues aside — during the shutdown is keeping performers and production team safe. In the theatrical context, Zoom allows actors to perform their roles from entirely different locations (usually their homes), each appearing onscreen to viewers in one of those little rectangles that now occupy our days and haunt our dreams. A screen can display either a single rectangle (usually showing whoever’s talking) or a gallery of several performers. 

The medium also has its drawbacks. The more rectangles, the less space available to each, and the harder for viewers to discern. Unless the actors are already sharing a home, they can’t interact in person, which limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

Patrick Nims

Accordingly, for his first Zoom production last April, Nims thought about plays that involved just two characters talking to each other. “I’d always had a soft spot for David Mamet’s Reunion,” an uncharacteristically sweet early (1976) one-act about an estranged father and daughter, with their entire conversation happening across the simplest of sets: a kitchen table. He called up a couple of actors he knew, one in Portland, the other in the Bay Area, and asked if they’d give what was then an entirely new kind of production a chance.

Gearing Up

“The single hardest challenge was just getting the equipment,” Nims remembers. The last thing those of us who want to unwind with after a day of work-related Zooming is more blurs and hiccups and “what did you say?” moments brought to us by lame built-in laptop and phone webcams. That’s OK for checking in with relatives, maybe, but not so much for theater. 

Still, “it’s not terribly expensive to add, say, four good-quality webcams,” Nims says. “Then all they need is cable.” Further investments can boost quality. Nims wanted good mikes, separate, movable webcams (not attached to their computers or phones), versatile lighting, and a green screen setup.

As many other home Zoomers discovered last spring, though, Nims found the best webcams backordered for months. “Logitech webcams were harder to get than toilet paper at the time!” he recalls. He finally found some used cameras on Ebay apparently built for Asian markets. “When I plugged them in,” he remembers, “I’d see kanji characters.”

Last summer’s politically imposed post office crisis also caused problems when equipment had to be shipped to performers, who already had the tougher challenge: three weeks to learn a 90-minute show. Eventually, Nims learned to send production assistants to actors homes to help with tech when possible and necessary.

The software itself is free, so investing in hardware and tech-savvy production assistants also frees the already-stressed actors from worrying about getting the tech right. “If you have to worry about turning the camera on or off or whether the mike is working right, that’s not conducive to a good performance,” he says. “Once they get to tech and dress rehearsals, actors need to not think about that and focus on their real job, which is the character.”

For Zoom’s June production of Anna Ziegler‘s “Actually,” Maya Sherer and Kevin Minor rehearsed and performed from locations 1,800 miles apart.

Once he had equipment sorted, Nims (who had “not a whit of film directing experience”) and his actors had to figure out how to make effective theater on screen. For Nims the director, it turned out to be “no harder than doing a normal theater production,” he says. “It’s all still blocking, props — the  same kinds of questions you’d be answering if you were staging a play normally.”

They started, as usual, with “table reads,” in which the actors read their lines aloud, with scripts but without props or costumes, so they could see each other over their own computer screens and develop some feel for their socially distant scene partners. (In actual performance, they’re often playing to a spot on a wall.) Then they focused on “blocking” — determining how they’d move — which wasn’t so complicated with such limited space for movement.

Still, differences abounded. The screen’s more intimate scale meant much thought went into where to place the limited single-view webcams, which are closer in sophistication to simple security cameras than the cameras used in even indie film. And they focused more on tiny gestures that would be invisible to an in-person audience looking at the stage from dozens of feet away.

“You’ll spend 10 minutes on how to hand someone a glass,” Nims says. “‘Extend your hand, on this word, and then bring your hand back.’ It’s a game of inches.” 

Using cameras offered advantages over in-person shows, allowing the director to control exactly what the audience sees. “In a stage production, an audience can look anywhere they want,” Nims points out. “The stage director’s challenge is to get the audience to look where you want them to look.” 

That’s a lot easier when you can point a camera at it. In Reunion, for example, he placed a camera on each actor’s kitchen table so that the audience could see both actors’ faces at the same time, angled so that the actors seemed to be looking not at the audience, but past the camera and talking to each other. 

A big part of an LVT director’s job is more frequently reminding actors what the audience is seeing, since there are no seats to play to. Top priority: make sure that actors stay in the frame when they stood or moved. 

There’s also a difference in how directions are conveyed. “From a director’s standpoint, [LVT] does break you of bad habits,” Nims explains. “You can’t even point to say where to go,” since the actor is seeing a mirror image. “That forces you to rely on verbal communication with your cast,” he says. “It’s like trying to drive a car, but steering with your feet and hands tied behind your back.”

When initial rehearsals were over, setting up the equipment and lighting and mikes for the technical rehearsal and then live-streamed performance took about as long for a Zoom shoot as it would take in a real theater’s tech weekend, Nims says. 

Straining for Effect

The biggest challenges proved neither technical nor directorial. In live video theater, it’s the actors who bear the brunt of performing in a dramatically different medium. “I do think the demands on stage actors are significantly harder,” Nims says. “It’s a different animal.” 

For instance, stage actors who lack screen-acting experience have to learn to modulate their voices to suit microphones, and shorten their beats between lines (because internet latency already imposes a half-second delay between the time an actor speaks and the audience and scene partners hear it. 

The toughest obstacle: learning to play to a piece of tape on the wall instead of to actual people on stage or in the audience — depriving them of the instant feedback that can make a scene feel real — and what Anthony Newley called “the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.” Fortunately, for Zoom’s May production of Lungs, Nims found a married couple who could play the two roles without maintaining social distance.

Amber Collins Crane and Gregory Crane starred in “Lungs”.

Still, just the process of recording their parts in their homes poses a challenge for performers. “It’s an invasion of their personal space,” Nims notes. Actors need a reasonably fast, modern computer, reliable fast internet service, and “access to a place where they can perform and the neighbors won’t call the police” when the script calls for yelling or screaming. Moreover, they’re often grappling with new technology and approaches, and they’re missing the camaraderie that draws so many of us to theater in the first place. 

Zoom rehearsals proved so taxing that Nims learned to give his performers frequent breaks and later even provided virtual breakout/hangout rooms for them to decompress in. Some actors decided that they were glad they’d tried it but would decline future Zoom offerings in favor of audio or (knock wood) eventual live shows. But others were so desperate to express the art they’ve spent much of their lives honing that, as the shutdowns stretched on and Zoom Theatre’s profile grew, Nims’s audition announcements netted up to “a couple hundred people from all over the world.” 

Live on Screen

It wasn’t for the limited money the productions netted, Nims says. “A couple hundred bucks for a production is better than nothing, but it’s obviously not a paid gig. When we distributed the audience donations among cast members, we were paying barely semi-pro wages.” That ruled out union actors, but since those early productions, he says, the actors unions have negotiated wage scales for LVT productions, so that may change.

Nims had to figure out how to fit this new streaming approach into the old, live-staging based business model, and abide by the same limits. To license a script from the publisher at an affordable rate, he had to limit attendance to no more than 100 per performance, the same rate applied to live performances at small houses in the past. Zoom Theatre’s shows drew between 60 and 100 viewers per night. Admission was free, with a donation link provided at the end of the show.

The only marketing Nims did was on Facebook. Cast members also spread the word in their circles. Each play ran for a single weekend, four shows total, with all performances happening live — not pre-recorded video, and no later on-demand streaming. Which was fine with Nims, for whom performing in real time is an essential part of what makes theater magic.

After directing and producing three intimate shows that allowed the team to get comfortable with the basics of making Zoom theater — and just confirming that it could actually work — Nims decided to try more ambitious fare, including last August’s Macbeth. He also took a break from directing that one. More elaborate productions can require more tech help, including a couple of tech assistants stationed at laptops and cameras at each actor’s recording space. 

The numbers: By the end of 2020, Zoom’s 34 performances had reached 2,855 audience members, employed 43 actors and 32 production staffers, and required 135 Zoom rehearsals, for a total of 124 hours on Zoom.

The internet’s worldwide reach has brought Zoom and other streaming productions to a potentially much broader audience than any typical stage play, unhindered by geography and or inclement weather or even the necessity of switching from pajamas to pants to go out to the theater. It’s also allowed for easy online feedback from audience members — both during and after performances. Audience members were allowed (not required) to activate their own computer/phone microphones open so the performers could hear their responses. Hearing other audience members laugh, for example, is critical to making much comedy work. “At the beginning, people said ‘that’s insane — there’s so much that can go wrong,’” Nims admits. “But five shows in, it’s not as big a differentiator as one might think.”

Of course, not all feedback is welcome. “If you don’t have barking dogs or talking family members” in the background, Nims says, “we want you.” Once, and only once so far, they even experienced that bane of Zoom meetings: a Zoom bombing. But the production team learned to respond quickly, and have the ability to mute any audience member’s microphone anytime. 

Zoom Theatre’s “Macbeth.”

A number of theater directors eager to see how the new medium might work tuned into the first few shows, and so many of the talkback questions revolved around technology — “how did you do that?” But as the novelty wore off and audiences expanded, Nims says, conversations centered more and more upon the show itself. “Most gratifying to me,” he wrote in a blog post, “is that audience members adjust to the medium and are able to focus on the story and performances, not the technology.”

The initial attempts at Zoom and other LVT might have been able to ride the freshness factor, and the fact that for a while it was about the only option available to theater junkies. By now, “audiences are adapting to not being in the live environment and becoming more sophisticated about being online,” Nims says. 

Still, after so many more Zoom productions invaded the airwaves, “the fatigue factor is absolutely real,” Nims says. “Even if the ticket might be free, you still have to justify them giving up their time.”

Some audience responses definitely fall into the “love it or hate it” categories, Nims says, with words like “fantastic” and “amazing” peppering the former. Some praised the strong chemistry displayed between actors separated by hundreds of miles who’d never actually met. “Innovative, provocative, you managed to get through the ‘obstacles’ imposed by our current state of affairs as it affects theatre,” one audience comment read, “and present something that was not an excuse for not being able to present theater in its usual form, but rather a vibrant presentation of something altogether new and very much alive.” 

Lessons Learned

Other directors — including one in India — have asked Nims for advice about doing their own LVT shows. Last summer, Portland Area Theatre Alliance and Hillsboro’s Bag n Baggage Productions hosted Nims’s detailed, comprehensive webinar — almost a master class — about how to make Zoom theater that showed just how much he’d learned.

• Plan out your production team well in advance

• Decide how long a stream will be up and whether it’ll be behind a paywall

• Make sure actors have the necessary tech and supply directors with a photo or video of their home performance spaces

• Make sure the audience feels comfortable and welcome and tell them exactly what steps they’ll need to take to gain access to the show and any interactive elements, and to donate

• Post-show debriefings from both audiences and participants can make future productions better. 

One of the biggest lessons: get help. “If you’re not digitally inclined, get somebody as your tech director who’ll sit and work with you through rehearsals,” Nims advises. “Anyone who has the skills to be a stage manager or run a sound board or lighting [in a standard stage production] already knows what’s necessary to run cues at proper time,” he explains. “If they have experience in that world and are digitally confident, it’s no harder than running tech in any other show.” 

Experienced LVT personnel can help directors take advantage of the new medium and expand their artistic palettes. “A lot of [initial live video productions] used a readers theater/staged reading approach because directors didn’t know what they could do,” Nims says. “They need to lean into the medium and know what it can and can’t do.” 

Silver Linings

After some initial skepticism, more theater companies are embracing LVT. “Live video theatre will not replace live in-person theatre, nor will it replace television or film,” wrote Peter J. Kuo in Howlround. “Nor will it destroy any of those industries. The investment in this art form requires a mental shift among creators on how we define theatre, but the product and process will be strangely familiar and satisfying for artists and audiences of both theatre and film. With the community’s support, live video theatre can pump the oxygen into our respiratory systems, not simply sustaining us through this pandemic, but growing our field into the future.”

In a blog post, Nims ticked off the advantages digital platforms offer theater.

• allows theatre artists from all over the world to collaborate without travel or housing budgets.

• opens the doors to audience members that could otherwise not attend performances due to geographic or physical limitations. (It does however, impose a new “digital access” limitation for audience members that might not have computers or fast internet.)

• allows audience members from all over the world to respond to performances verbally and via text in real time, completing the loop and giving theatre makers feedback on their work.

• can be much less expensive to produce, allowing theatre companies to mount productions that might not otherwise be viable.

That doesn’t mean LVT is a complete substitute for old-school productions. Instead, Nims believes, theater makers and audiences should adjust expectations and judgment to what LVT is, not what it’s not. “The motto of Zoom Theatre,” he wrote, “ has become ‘embrace the limitations of the medium.’”

Nims is especially grateful that live video theater has enabled him to direct passion projects — shows like last fall’s Collective Rage whose subject matter is risky or niche enough to make breaking even unlikely, given the costs (especially venue rental) of a live production. 

Zoom Theatre’s “Collective Rage.”

“Having done this for six months, I regret it not at all,” he says. “I’m so happy to have made connections with directors, audience, and actors I would not necessarily have had access to. There is a community that’s different from a staged theater. It’s definitely satisfying, but in a different way. I encourage anybody to try it out. Once you get over that initial cost of equipment, you will be flexing creative muscles and problem solving like you do anyway in theater.”

Looking ahead, Nims predicts that even after live performances return, LVT will continue. “There is an audience that would love to see live theater but can’t get out anyway, pandemic aside,” he notes. “Theater companies are already investing in equipment” and have picked up the needed skills from this year’s experiments.

What’s more, “some interesting technical improvements are coming down the road that could be very exciting,” including technology that allows simultaneous, no-latency singing from different locations (which groups like Portland’s 45th Parallel Universe, Kronos Quartet and others are already using), and other advancements that allow tech directors to remotely run lights, control Zoom windows, and even run synthesized instruments — obviating the need for actors or tech assistants to handle those tasks from actors’ home performance spaces. And he has plenty of other feature suggestions for Zoom (the company) to make its product work better for theater.

“We surely have much to learn and many mistakes more to make,” Nims wrote on Zoom Theatre’s blog. “We also have to educate and learn from our audiences to develop a new on-line performance etiquette together. But this notwithstanding, live digital theatre, and Zoom Theatre in particular, is no longer an experiment in ‘will this work.’ Zoom Theatre is now an exploration into ‘how far can we take this?'”

However far that is, Nims says, “I’ll take this for now,” and even after theaters reopen, he’ll keep the Zoom Theatre website up, maybe live-streaming occasional productions that would work better online, or wouldn’t draw a big enough audience to justify an in-person production. But as soon as it’s possible to direct shows on stage rather than onscreen, he vows, he’ll be right back there, making live theater in the room where it happens. 

***

Zoom Theatre’s next shows include Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Feb. 25-Mar 7), and MJ Kaufman’s Sensitive Guys (April 1-4). Tickets and info here.

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