“Sometimes I have the real feeling of being a kid playacting alone in their bedroom,” says Holly Holsinger, as she talks about what it’s like to perform solo on Zoom.
With one performance left of her show Frankenstein’s Wake (hosted through Cleveland Public Theatre), Holsinger is one of many artists who has stepped bravely into the virtual world of online performances. Her piece was created along with Raymond Bobgan (who also directed). The one-woman play is based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece. So, the old story meets with the new technology, and the time-tested themes of the production are Universal in this time of COVID-19.
“It has timeless themes of human desires and yearnings. I think it feels especially relevant right now, that desire for deep connection because we’re so isolated. I think it also has survived simply because of my pure stubbornness and desire to keep performing it. It’s fairly easy to come back to because I can work on it by myself. Of course, Raymond is always a part of any version we do, but I rehearse a lot on my own and don’t have to rely so much on others. This has been especially important during these pandemic times,” says Holsinger.
The play first performed off-Broadway in 1997 by Cleveland’s own Theatre Labyrinth. In 2016, it was performed locally in a full runway-style space at Cleveland Public Theatre. Today, with this virtual re-staging, the press release states that “the creators seek to reflect a deeper knowledge and evolved perspective on the themes of longing, the search for one’s origin, conflict with the maker, and what it means to be human.”
The coronavirus pandemic has left the world to reimagine what interaction looks like. For many, it’s left them feeling alienated and alone. The show echoes the search for companionship, and has been adapted (ironically) from an inclusive audience atmosphere into a solitary digital venture.
Of course, there are differences in how the piece is presented now. With a different space and the confines of a computer screen playing area, tweaks in monologue, lights, sound, and staging have come with the adaptation.
Holsinger explains, “Raymond and I adapted the piece to be more Zoom-friendly by removing a lot of the action and simplifying scenes. We added a lot of narrator text to fill in the gaps. Using Zoom has been an opportunity to get even more intimate with the audience (in a theatre setting, the audience is a runway setup with the [spectators] very close). The intimacy of seeing my face fill the screen, some of the scary moments I get super close, playing with the small space and how that communicates through the camera have all been things we’ve been playing with.”
For Holsinger, there are plenty of quirks and challenges of being a solo performer acting for a camera or a computer screen. The parameters have changed drastically, but this show has been tailored for today’s viewing platforms.
“I’m largely responsible for my own tech, and though I do sound checks and camera checks before the show with a stage manager outside the room, I am the one who turns on my sound and video. If something goes wrong, I’m on my own. The other interesting challenge has been that I can see myself on the screen. It’s necessary, so that I can control how things are framed and the picture the audience is seeing. Luckily, I don’t ever look directly at myself. We’ve found that the place on the screen for me to connect with that makes it look like I’m connecting with the viewer is slightly lower and to the left of the camera. I have a piece of tape on that spot,” she says.
But part of performing can include drawing emotional energy from an audience. When playing for a screen, there is a different vibe as opposed to being in a live room.
“First of all, it’s rather lonely,” she notes. “Usually in performance I gather energy from the audience and am playing with them and reacting to them (especially in this play, where I speak directly to the audience most of the time). I do take a peek at the audience before the show so I know they’re out there and experiencing this with me. But sometimes I have the real feeling of being a kid playacting alone in their bedroom.”
A question that comes up involves asking if once the restrictions have ended, if Zoom and virtual performing will be here to stay. When quarantine limits are lifted, people may be slow to return to in-person spaces due to residual fear and uncertainty about the virus. Even years into the future, we may be feeling the effects of this pandemic on all live events.
“One lovely payoff for virtual performance is access. As long as you have a device, you can see the play from anywhere in the world without leaving your home. I believe some version of that will continue. But I also believe there is nothing like a shared, live, in-person experience. But even on Zoom, I feel that a live performance is different (feels different) for everyone than a video of a performance,” says Holsinger. She has been motivated by colleagues and their work in this newer medium.
“The most inspiring was probably watching the teens of the CPT STEP (Student Theatre Enrichment Program) group work together from their homes to create a live performance. The performance included dance, spoken word, scenes, monologues, costumes, and characters. They had to coordinate their cameras for it all to come together. In the discussion afterward, it was so clear how much this had meant to them, that they were alone, but this made them feel very close to each other, and it was exciting for them to perform (even for a remote audience). I think Cleveland theaters are dealing with this the best they can and in ways that make sense for them. CPT continues to offer a season of live online performances. But I also am inspired by the work that Karamu is doing. They are creating and producing a high-quality video series that addresses bias, racism, and other relevant issues and streaming on YouTube. Other organizations are offering one-night cabarets, and many continue to offer their education programs online. Others are taking a break,” she says.
There are tips for making a Zoom performance look and sound its best. The New York Times has a whole article titled “How to Use Zoom Like a Theater or Film Professional – Tips for putting your best face forward, if only for an office staff meeting,” written by Alex Hawgood. Even FoxBusiness.com has thoughts on the matter in its article “5 tips to have a successful Zoom or other virtual event – Engaging an audience takes skill, and engaging them remotely is key,” by Carol Roth.
Her next venture is already planned. “I will begin work on Red Bike by Caridad Svich with the students of Cleveland State University. I am excited to take on the role of director, having learned so much about virtual production. I have lots of ideas, and this is a beautiful play that can be performed in many ways,” she says.
Holsinger has her own suggestions for using Zoom:
“Take time to learn about your medium and experiment. It takes time to understand how sound works, how lights work, how engaging with a camera works. Play around with the camera. Ideas can be communicated in interesting ways. If you are performing with others in separate locations, there are ways to seamlessly transfer the screen, ways to share the screen, and control what is seen. Make sure you have a solid internet connection. Also, I think it’s really important that the audience feels like a community. Allow them to gather and see each other before and after the show, and interact in some way. That’s always deeply satisfying for me both as performer and as audience member because I’m hungry for that.”
TICKET and SHOW INFORMATION
Frankenstein’s Wake will perform live one last time on Zoom at 7:00pm (ET) on November 20, 2020. The run time is 60 minutes, and the virtual “house” is limited to 35 “seats”.
Tickets are $1; suggested donation $1 to $99. Patrons must use Zoom to see this work and will receive an email 1-2 hours before showtime with the meeting login information. Please note online sales for each performance will close at 5:00pm (ET).
Purchase tickets at www.cptonline.org or call the CPT Box Office at 216.631.2727 ext. 501.