Life Versus the Paperback Romance was written in 1999 by Samantha Gellar. This play, despite winning a state-wide writing competition, was barred from being performed in Charlotte due to its lesbian story. Now, in 2020, the LGBT Elders of Charlotte, Project Enough, and many others decided to finally put on this performance. This play was directed by Shannon Bauerle, starred Quin Williams and myself, and included a post-show Q&A with Samantha Gellar herself.
It would’ve been amazing to perform this live at UNC Charlotte or somewhere more public. But this is 2020 and nothing is as it seems. So how does a virtual play even work?
It’s never easy to stand in front of people and recite a monologue. Palms are sweaty, throat dry, and the entire prepared speech goes out the window. So shouldn’t that all be less nerve-wracking over a video call? Yes… and no. As someone who has also acted in a few high school plays, I can attest that “stage fright” doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a physical theatre involved. I must admit that being able to read off of the script and sit in my own bedroom for this audition did help put me at ease a bit.
It was during this audition, however, that I began to doubt the power of virtual performances. It felt less like an audition and more like a spoken-word poetry piece. Throughout my time at UNCC, I’ve performed in Tales From Down There and Poetry Speaks. The difference between those shows and Life Versus the Paperback Romance is conversation. A poet may speak to the audience but it’s rare that the audience talks back. But an actor usually needs a give and take for the story to really hit home during a play.
What was it like to star alongside someone I’ve never met in person? Strange but rewarding. Not only was Quin a patient scene partner, but the fact that she wasn’t meeting me at an actual venue made it surprisingly more comfortable. Society creates this pressure for first meetings that doesn’t really exist when it’s just you and another person saying hello over Zoom for the first time.
The strangest part of this exchange, however, was that the play took place in our bedrooms. From the director to the writer to the actors, we were all either sitting on our beds or on random chairs. Cast members saw each other’s dirty laundry piled up, cringey band posters hung on the walls, and stacks of papers strewn all over. It was like an accidental peek into the personal lives of coworkers; an occurence I’m sure most of us have become acquainted with this year.
So there’s a mess spanning the entire room, but who would want to pay to see that? Sets are imperative to many plays. If some scenes are on a pirate ship, there needs to be a pirate ship. The backdrop is meant to function as an indicator of “where” and “when”. For a virtual performance, the easy solution would be green screen. Not so fast. We tried using a green screen that kept picking my eyes, nose, and mouth up as “green” and, truthfully, made me look like a fading monster. For the sake of a cohesive, united front, we opted on using same-colored sheets for the backdrop and, instead of putting the set behind us, we made PowerPoint slides to give the audience a feel for the “when” and “where”.
Life Versus the Paperback Romance is a very simple play. There are no props required. There are implied props. We made sure to have Sprite, coffee mugs, and novels depending on the scene. Those items were easy enough to get, what wasn’t easy was discovering where to put them once the scene was over. Space is limited in any home and the room I performed in was incredibly cramped. There was spillage and there were close calls with knocking into the computer too. It’s about space, time, and trying not to break anything.
Fortunately, there is a way to put someone in the spotlight virtually. We played around with speaking to the camera head-on but it came off as intimidating. The director then made the decision, to turn the other actor's cameras off and leave one single person on-screen to deliver their monologue.
One thing that we were able to use in terms of blocking was entering and exiting the scene. Even this, however, came with its challenges. Like I mentioned earlier, the amount of space in a bedroom, home office, or kitchen is nothing compared to a theatre. This means that there is not enough room, and plenty of opportunity, to mess up a simple entrance and exit. In the few scenes where I was supposed to “plop down” I’d nearly upended my desk chair three times because of the props, wardrobe, lighting, and general mess around me.
What can go wrong will go wrong. Or so the saying goes. This has never been more true for me than it was on the night of this live performance. We’d had our fair share of wifi issues and miscommunication during rehearsals but nothing major. Until… the night of the performance. Suddenly, Zoom links weren’t working, there was no access to Facebook Live, the PowerPoint refused to play properly, and, worst of all, connectivity was at all time low for my costar.
Most people know that a crucial part of acting is improve. Being able to improvise when something isn’t working is what has kept many actors relevant. The thing about improve, though, is that one actor can usually play off of the situation at hand. I.e. if a cell phone goes off in the audience, if a cast member falls off the stage, if there’s a wardrobe malfunction, there’s always a way to make it funny or maybe even intentional. But I had no idea if the static-ridden, blurry, frozen image of my fellow cast mate was what everyone in the audience was seeing if it was a wifi issue on my end. It’s hard to talk when you don’t know if you’re just shouting into the void. Eventually, the kinks worked themselves out and the play proceeded as planned. But it was a miracle that the audience could tell what was up and what was down during those turbulent technical issues.
Take A Bow
Putting a Q&A at the tail-end of the performance helped ease the tension between virtual cast and virtual audience. It allowed for a more intimate conversation. Imagine if every play that you attended allowed for an hour of questions after the fact. Building relationships and connections is a big part of putting on a show because it’s really the only reason that people stay invested.
So, whether you act, sing, teach, or observe any virtual events, remember that everything is different and anything can go wrong at any time. Regardless, always give it your best shot!
Check out how Life Versus the Paperback Romance went on