Theatre Three in Port Jefferson is keeping the arts alive despite being closed due to COVID-19 with a series of virtually presented plays entitled Off-Stage/On-Line.
Each play is 15 minutes or fewer, garnered from writers across the world, and are posted to Theatre Three’s YouTube channel. They are free to view.
Presenting plays in such an original way can prove challenging, so playwrights were asked to create work that was specifically intended to take place via Zoom, which is the system of communication and recording that the actors and directors use to bring the plays to life.
The genres presented have run the gauntlet from dark comedies to serious drama, and characters have ranged from fireflies, to vampires, to players in a noir-themed audiobook. By using the constraints of the internet platform to find a way to tell a story, the writers have essentially created a new genre of theater: remote, accessible to everyone who has an internet connection, and extremely creative and entertaining.
Off-Stage/On-Line debuted on May 3 with a comedy entitled Taking Sum Lumps, by Ken Preuss, starring Michelle LaBozzetta and Brian Smith. Since then, a new play has premiered every Sunday and Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on YouTube, Facebook, and Theatre Three’s website. As of this post, additional plays are officially scheduled into August. To date, Theatre Three has received more than 400 script submissions and the call is still open.
The series is directed by Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel. Technical production is by Tim Haggerty and Eric J. Hughes. They are very proud of this ongoing online festival which is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Alan Schelp and features plays from writers as local as Setauket and as far as New Zealand.
Sanzel spoke with the Press about this series, his experiences working as an artistic director during a global pandemic, and more.
What was it like to be at the helm of a theater when the pandemic hit? It was strange and a bit disorienting. We were towards the end of our Joseph run; Steel Magnolias was two weeks to tech; this year’s One-Act Festival was three weeks to tech. There was a children’s show running and another going into rehearsal. And then, in just a few days, we had to stop everything. I don’t think we fully understood what was to come. At first, we all assumed we’d be shut down for a month, six weeks at most. As those first few weeks played out, we realized the severity of the situation.
Who came up with the idea to put a series of plays online and how tough has it been to record them, edit them, and get the costuming and props for them? At first, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to keep our presence out there. I saw that theatres were doing interview shows and mini-concerts and many of them were doing those things very well. I also went to a number of virtual readings — some worked, some didn’t. I know that when I get a video link and I see that it runs 40 minutes or longer, I am very unlikely to watch it. If I see that it runs ten to 15 minutes, I’ll find the time. We’ve had a great success with our annual Festival of One-Act Plays so I thought that would work best for us. I put out a call and got a huge response right away. We’ve done all of the rehearsing on Zoom as well as the taping. The theatre’s sound designer, Tim Haggerty, has been doing all of the editing. He spends hours after we tape working on the pieces, sometimes doing up to five drafts. He’s done incredible work. We’ve only had a few specialty prop and costume pieces so it hasn’t been much of an issue. They’re predominantly realistic plays done in real time.
You received a huge number of submissions. How do you decide on the ones you will feature? That’s a hard question. It’s like with the One-Act Festival. I read them and go for a visceral reaction. If I think they have a possibility, I pass them on to my co-producers, Douglas Quattrock and Melissa Troxler, to read. Then we meet online and discuss them. There have been some we immediately agreed upon and others that we put in the “maybe” folder and come back to later. Many of the submissions have been good plays but ones that don’t translate to the medium. Zoom requires a very specific kind of piece and I think some of the authors didn’t take into account the limitations, especially when people cannot be in the same room.
You have such a diverse range of themes here. Have any of the plays stood out to you personally? It’s not nice for a parent to favor one child over another!
This series is popular and brilliant. Might you keep it going even after COVID is over? I don’t think we could do two a week but it’s something we would consider. It’s been a good challenge and a way to connect with our actors. What’s been nice is that there are actors who haven’t been able to work for us for a while because of schedules or distance so there are some faces who haven’t appeared at Theatre Three in years. Two of the actors who are doing this aren’t even in-state. Ed Breese, who will be appearing in Funeral Arrangements, lives in Tennessee; he actually appeared in this piece when we did it as part of our Festival in 2001. Sarah Markowitz, who hasn’t worked for the theatre in over ten years, is appearing in Lifestyle Content; Sarah currently lives in Israel.
How do you think a global platform like YouTube can help raise awareness of the theater across the globe? Absolutely. There is so much online work being done. Large theatres like The National Theatre are releasing plays weekly. There are groups all across the country doing a range of productions — from full Zoom plays to short pieces for children.
What are your plans for the theater upon reopening? Right now, we’re in a holding pattern and waiting to see when we get to phase four. We are planning on a Recapturing the 50th Season with Steel Magnolias opening in March 2021, followed by Grease. If we can get going before then, we will. It might mean intimate productions that are presented to small audiences that are social distanced. We just have to wait and see what the guidelines handed down from both New York State and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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