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The Liveness of Theater: Performing in a post-coronavirus world

Rebecca Maxfield, artistic director of Head Trick Theatre

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful to my friend Rebecca Maxfield for agreeing to speak with me here in an interview for Motif.

Rebecca is the artistic director of Head Trick Theatre located in Providence. The company is in resident at 95 Empire Street under the umbrella of AS220 and it was right on the precipice of opening a production when everything had to shut down.

I was excited to check in with her, and this is what she had to say:

Kevin Broccoli: First off, how are you doing right now?

Rebecca Maxfield: Time is meaningless, but I’ve seen a lot more pretty flowers in my neighborhood than I would have if walks around the neighborhood weren’t my only way of getting out of the house.

KB: You were rehearsing for a show, The Lucky Chance, when everything shut down. Has there been a discussion about remounting the show?

RM: There sure has. Even before it was officially canceled we were polling people’s future availability and talking about options for releasing it digitally. Unfortunately, the regulations came down a little too early for us to release a video of the (staged) show since we couldn’t gather as a cast or use the theater space, but we’ll be releasing an audio (or probably Zoom, it’s nice to see people’s faces) version soon. And we’re still anticipating getting the gang back together, although we of course don’t know if the future dates we originally settled on will work (whether we’ll all be allowed to go places again yet, whether AS220 will give us those dates). We have the advantage of doing a lot of public domain work where we don’t need to negotiate rights to postpone it or do any kind of online release. (The Lucky Chance actually happens to be the only public domain show in our 2019-2020 season because the other two, Queen Margaret and Mrs. Dalloway, were adaptations, which means that it was also the only one where most of the box office take wasn’t going toward paying for the rights. I hope that people who enjoy the digital version will throw some money at us.)

KB: How closely have you been paying attention to some of the proposed guidelines we’re starting to hear about how theater can re-open with social distancing guidelines? Do you feel confident that as a smaller theater you could make yours work even with guidelines in place?

RM: It depends on so many things. Our AS220 space is less the size of a supermarket and closer to the size of one of those corner stores that says two customers can come in at a time, so I don’t know, is social distancing even possible there? But I honestly haven’t been paying close attention to the proposals because it’s going to be the venue’s call when we can come back. With the margin we run on, we’d definitely have to carefully project future work to minimize expenses if we’re going to have to cap audiences in an already tiny space and limit our box office even more. (And also potentially consider doing more performances of shorter material.) Under our current residency arrangement (which gives AS220 the first X amount of the box office take and then a percentage of everything after that), it’s up for question whether we’d actually see any of the money, depending on what the restrictions are. So if socially distant audience becomes the rule, I imagine we might want to look into re-negotiating that. Another option for us would be to go back to doing that thing I hate, which is outdoor theater. I mean, Queen Margaret this year was our first ever indoor summer show. We did outdoor theater for four years so we know it works.

KB: Right now, I go back and forth about attempting to do another a season for 2020-2021. Where are you with thinking about that?

RM: It sucks! We had our 2020-2021 season planned, though not announced, it very much had a unifying theme, and now nobody knows what’s going to happen. The planned fall show is, I’m going to be vague, thematically a little time-sensitive in a way that makes me want to think about how to do it in a different way if need be, but it’s also a show/production concept that, in some fundamental ways, would not work that way. Because of how the fall show was going to work, we were already planning on taking the summer off or doing something lower-key (barring the brief window of time when we thought we’d just be remounting Lucky Chance in the summer), so I’m just keeping an eye on how people are thinking it’s looking for the fall and next spring, and hoping that by the time we’d need to pull the trigger on starting auditions and rehearsals, we’ll know a little more.

KB: Your work is primarily produced at 95 Empire Street, which is a part of AS220. How much contact have you had with AS220 about moving forward? Were they a large part of how you proceeded with cancelling your last production?

RM: AS220 is dealing with a lot. I’m in touch periodically but they, somewhat understandably, are not currently able to tell us when we’d be able to use the space again. For better or for worse, the decision to cancel The Lucky Chance was also not in my hands.

KB: I asked Chris this, but I’m going to ask you as well: Can your theater — or any theater for that matter — survive being away for the longest predicted amount of time? Can any of us afford to be closed for 18 months?  I don’t just mean financially, but in terms of the cultural impact of being absent from people’s lives for that long?

RM: I think people will want theater back. It’ll be a little shaky because there won’t be a moment where one day everyone is staying home and then you flip a switch and boom, the next day everyone feels safe being in a crowd again. But on principle, yes, I don’t think that any amount of broadcasts, from the best theaters in the world, like we’re getting now, are giving people the same experience as you get in a shared space. And that’s not even getting into the actor side of it. In terms of Head Trick specifically, I hope people remember that we, specifically, exist when they can audition for and attend live theater again. Financially we’ll be all right.

KB: Another repeat question that I think bears asking:  If theater enters an on-and-off period where we have to shut down periodically due to the virus returning intermittently, what does that mean for how we put seasons and individual productions together?

RM: It’s so hard. I love Chris’ idea for rehearsing public domain and original work remotely, ready to go on two weeks’ notice, but as he alluded to, it also feels like a lot to ask of people, to keep rehearsing (and memorizing?!) just in case something might happen. Maybe we’ll be seeing more staged readings for a while. Also, I’m saying this off the top of my head now, but I wonder if the fact that this is exploding our ability to create coherent seasons within our own companies is an opportunity for us all as artistic directors to put our heads together about what we want to talk about as a theater community, if we’re going to be in a state of one show per year for a couple of years. A non-festival festival. But yeah, the lead time involved in putting a production together is still a factor.

KB: How much time are you able to devote to thinking about all this while still taking care of your own mental health? Are you still attempting to plan even without a lot of information available to you?

RM: Constantly. The current state of affairs is really fucking with my ability to self-motivate (ask anyone in the Lucky Chance cast how long it took me to get out the notes from our last Zoom rehearsal), but my mental health would be tanking a lot harder if I weren’t trying to keep doing things and connect with other theater people.

KB: Where do you stand on creating digital content? I know the liveness of theater is a huge part of your mission. Does that make you more hesitant to try moving toward more digital creation?

RM: You’re right that liveness is a huge part of our mission at Head Trick, and that that’s something that we have to either suspend for a bit or find other ways of thinking about. For me, personally, liveness is part of a broader interest in how medium and form can influence how we tell a story and what we get out of it, so I don’t want to go in the direction of Zoom readings of plays whose stories are written to rely on characters being in the same room, where someone reads the stage directions in lieu of people physically doing them (at least not as an “official” production of the company, those readings are fun to do as social things). Rather, I’d like to see us looking into stories where we can, you know, exploit the storytelling possibilities of the situation as it is. (A relevant comparison, for other people in nerd land, is the difference between playing a tabletop RPG where you describe how your character hits the monster with a sword, and playing an video chat “live-action” RPG where everyone is Star Wars fighter pilots on comms.) The project we’ve just announced is a first step toward that — we are attempting, in a fairly low-key but still auditioned/edited/rehearsed/etc. way, a web series of Dangerous Liaisons, because the novel as written (not the existing theater/film adaptation) is literally all told through letters from people in one place to people in another. But on the other hand, I was also just reading a news article about “drive-in” live dance performance, where people go to different locations to see solo and duet dances at a safe distance, and I want to think about whether that could work for theater, too.

KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?

RM: Well, anything people can donate to Head Trick would be appreciated. You can donate through our Square store: squareup.com/store/headtrick
Other than that, audition for Dangerous Liaisons! Chat with us and with your fellow lonely theater people on our Facebook page (we share interesting links and fun questions — if you have an opinion on which character should remain a human in an all-Muppet version of your favorite play, please share your vision with the world)! For that matter, if you have a burning question for the world, drop us a line and maybe we’ll post it. Send us videos of yourself doing theater at your webcam or at a safe distance outside that we can share! And keep an eye out for the Zoom Lucky Chance, announcements of our future projects and installments of Dangerous Liaisons.

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