Text is king

Posted June 17, 2020

Chekhov One Acts Web

American Players Theatre’s new series of virtual readings has its own magic.

By Gwendolyn Rice, Isthmus, June 16, 2020.

In this strange moment of COVID-19 and quarantines we have all lost our everyday interactions with others; well-worn routines of going to work or school, gathering with friends, going out to restaurants and of course, going to the live performing arts events like concerts and theater. As summer begins, there is also a loss of rituals — from graduations and weddings, to the Dane County Farmers’ Market, to the Fourth of July fireworks.

For many of us, early June is synonymous with another beloved ritual — bringing a picnic basket and a bottle of wine to the grounds at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, hearing the musical cue that the performance is about to begin, and carrying blankets and bug spray up the hill to see the first play of the season, performed by the consistently extraordinary APT company. We settle into our seats, surrounded by the sounds of Wisconsin wildlife. We marvel at the rustic, outdoor stage. We lean forward in our seats, waiting for our favorite actors, as well as the new class of interns, to transport us to Renaissance England or ancient Greece, Denmark or New Orleans. We revel in the stories and luxuriate in the words, as the sun goes down and the stars come out overhead. We even like the bats that regularly swoop in and out of the scenes.

Of course this year is different. But to APT’s credit, it is still enchanting. Thanks to a government grant for small businesses, the company was able to put their 2020 season on hold and create a new series of classical and contemporary readings, performed on the Zoom video conferencing platform and broadcast free of charge in collaboration with PBS Wisconsin. The partnership is smart on so many levels: APT is able to produce new, compelling content when many other theaters are struggling to find archived recordings of past shows to hurriedly put online. This is also an easy and accessible way to stay in touch with the company’s broad audience. And by working with nationally known director Aaron Posner and many of the theater’s most recognizable, uber-talented actors, the quality of the pieces is on par with all their other work to date. Partnering with a local television station that can edit the Zoom recording also avoids common pitfalls of other virtual programming — the final cut is smooth and glitch-free, there are no time lags between spoken lines, and the interaction among actors confined to small boxes on your TV screen is remarkably good.

The other reason this virtual staged reading format works so well for APT is that, as Posner comments in the talkback, “text is king” for the company. When artists allow audiences to focus on the words, they achieve a similar magic in storytelling that large casts in full costumes and makeup do on The Hill and in the Touchstone Theatre. As a bonus, in the Out of the Woods series, APT audiences can see the televised and socially distanced actors’ work up close, maybe for the first time. Delivering the dialogue directly at the camera of their laptops, we see faces full on, in minute detail, where we are used to observing them interacting on a much larger stage.

And in addition to the televised plays — the series officially debuted on pbswisconsin.org on June 12 with an evening of three one-act plays by Anton Chekhov — audiences are also treated to behind-the-scenes content. Yes, a whippoorwill sings and crickets chirp in the background as we focus on a still photo of the outdoor stage at the beginning of the presentation, to remind us of the familiar live experience. But then we hear directly from an almost giddy Brenda DeVita, APT artistic director, who introduces the company in its new medium. There is also a clever montage of actors warming up in their own homes — acknowledging the odd challenges of their new job.

And at the close of the performance there is a talkback with the actors and director, who field questions from the audience. It is a sneak peek behind the curtain that APT rarely provides, outside of performances for school field trips, that acknowledges the bizarre moment the performing arts is currently navigating, and allows the actors to voice how happy they are to be together again — even virtually — creating art as an

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