The year 2020 has forced theatre artists to tap into the deepest recesses of their creativity, all while navigating fears and anxiety over a global pandemic. Whether it is looking at ways to utilize parking lots as the next great theatre space or turning a teleconferencing tool into full blown theatre seasons, artists who might not have trained to act or direct on a computer screen, tablet or cell phone are now going full steam ahead to bring theatre to the masses in the Covid-19 era.
Tessa Corrie has trained as a stage director, but like everyone else who calls theatre a career nowadays, her rehearsal room and stage are as big as her computer screen, and the talent pool can reach to anyone in any location in the nation, as long as they possess a great WiFi plan.
Corrie is directing a production of the Quiara Alegría Hudes play “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” which is running as a more traditional theatre season offering at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View. She took some time to answer questions candidly about the show, her process as she worked through the more impersonal aspects of digital theatre, and what it means to direct a play in pajamas.
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David John Chávez: Clearly, everyone has to rethink the way we normally produce content until we can all return to a more traditional theatre experience. How does this digital venue provide you with some unique opportunities to do just that?
Tessa Corrie: This process has been a whirlwind. Unlike a typical production timeline, I had to think outside the box and construct a vision for three different mediums. Would it be theatre, film, Zoom? I’m not sure I have ever put my imagination through the wringer like this before but it was worth it!
DJC: What do you find both striking and/or problematic about the way Hudes uses language in her work?
TC: This show is told beautifully through the echoing of three generations of vets. I find it striking that a linear timeline is replaced with a melodic underscore of our character’s growth. It is very much up to the witness to discover these shifts and how aware our characters are of them. With that said, I think the piece can become problematic by what medium it is presented in. Gearing up to film this show has been a nail biting experience because of how intimate and fluid these stories intertwine and mirror one another. There is something magnetizing about this show when you are present in the shared space. There are consistent shifts between stillness and explosiveness. When theatre is filmed, there’s only so much a screen can do to capture one’s breath the same way a stage can.
DJC: Directors spend so much time honing their craft on a stage, so what is it like for you to do things on a digital platform? Is that a comfortable place for you to be? What do you find to be the most daunting aspect of this entire thing?
TC: I closed a show on Zoom the weekend before our first rehearsal so I count myself thankful. I am an introvert so directing a play from the comfort of my PJs is what dreams are made of. If I had to choose a daunting aspect of this show it would be arriving at a Theatre the day before filming and hoping the set, lights, sound, and blocking match what I had in my head. There were 11 hours to edit, listen, add, and adjust where a show usually has a week and the opportunity to see the production value in all of its stages. The silver lining is that if it works, it feels like Christmas walking into your vision fully realized.
DJC: Do you do any kind of different prep when it comes to how you ready yourself to direct digitally?
TC: I prepped differently for this show by keeping the restrictions of Covid-19 in the back of my head. This can be seen specifically through the set configuration and blocking. Isolation presents itself either physically, emotionally, or generationally and is crucial to this family’s undoing. If you give me a rule like “six feet away” I will run wild with it and take it as far as I can. This restriction encouraged our telling of Elliot but also allowed for less adjustments moving into the theatre.
DJC: As a stage director, what is something you feel you lose when you produce theatre in this way, and what do you do to actively work towards regaining those dynamics?
TC: I think that staging a show over Zoom naturally disconnects a cast. What I love about being in a Theatre is the intimacy that forms from working in proximity to one another. I actively pushed against this by holding rehearsals with the entire cast, emphasizing book work, and having a military advisor lead drills so that the cast could explore and create together.
DJC: On the flip side, what do you find is the silver lining of producing theatre on a computer from a distance?
TC: I believe a virtual rehearsal process is more accessible. No one needs to commute to rehearsal, there is no traffic, I was able to hire Amy Lizardo, my assistant director, even though she resides in Oregon. I continue to discover pros to a virtual world the longer I shelter in place and it’s lovely.
DJC: As far as your theatre training and all you’ve learned about directing, what is the one aspect of that which isn’t helpful or extremely useless when you direct digitally?
TC: As a director I have learned to be strategic in my process. For example, I start with the set. By mapping out the crucial moments on a floor plan, I begin to see everything that needs to exist in the space. The more I fine-tune the landscape, the more confident I feel in exploring the elements that will amplify this vision. However, building on one idea isn’t always possible in a pandemic. Typically a director isn’t pushing against the fear of having a show closed before it opens. I was so concerned with not being able to use a stage that I started conceptualizing this narrative in different mediums just so it could exist somewhere. The more I abandoned my “one idea strategy” the more prepared I felt with the real possibility of everything changing. To be able to pivot and adapt as a director is just as important as having everything neatly planned and ready to go.
DJC: Have you gone through this process and thought to yourself, if I can start this over, I would do this or that differently?
TC: I don’t know that I’ve ever directed a show and said, “Yes, this is everything it can become.” With that said, I am so proud of the heart we put in this show. This production faced so many obstacles and yet here we are. There’s a cast that has never seen this stage before, designers who have never met in person, and we film tomorrow. It’s crazy that we’ve built this together with dying computers and an AD chatting from an iPad taped to a music stand. How could I possibly trade this in for any other version?
WHAT TO KNOW
The Pear Theatre in Mountain View presents “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Tessa Corrie
Through Sept. 13th
Tickets range from $30 – $37
For tickets and information, visit The Pear Theatre website