IGNITE! Blog: Layla Dart

Tales from Sage Theatre’s First Virtual Production: How 5 Productions Adapted to an Online Format

For Sage Theatre, 2020 has been a year all about change. Like the rest of the world, COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the theatre company’s daily operations.  Artists had already created and submitted their pieces, and the line-up for their IGNITE! Emerging Arts Festival was loosely determined. How was the show going to go on?

Those at Sage Theatre decided to move all of the operations online, giving their artists one of two options: either save the show for next year or adapt it to an online format.

Eleven project leads and their teams took on the challenge, and a diverse arrangement of works were produced. Most shows began as traditional theatre pieces – meant to be performed on stage in front of a live audience – but all made unique adaptations. From a three-part web series to auditory experiences, an online investigative show and an improv piece over Zoom; the IGNITE Festival was stacked with all kinds of productions.

In its 15 years of running, the IGNITE! festival has been a launching pad for new and upcoming artists in Calgary. Many of the artists in this year’s festival (and those in the past) were producing their first piece, or were unfamiliar with this type of exposure. 

Many of the artists were worried that the show wouldn’t go on, so plenty advocated for the festival’s survival. Of course, Sage Theatre couldn’t say no. So, with mere weeks to go until the festival’s production, artists quickly adapted their pieces.

They worked with social distancing measures, and learned how to navigate being an artist in a COVID world.

Of those ten productions, five project leads have shared their stories about what this process was like, and what they’ve taken away from the experience. Hit the drop down titles below to read the tales of the 2020 IGNITE! Festival of Emerging Artists.

Devin Kotani originally planned for this to be a heavily interactive show. What better way to do that with a live audience? He planned to put on a thought provoking and intimate piece, meant to stir questions about racial representation in theatre. 

When COVID-related restrictions emerged, Kotani’s production moved much closer to home. To adapt to the changes, he had a decision to make – does filming the full performance make more sense than trying to do it live? How would that work?

“I was going through the different ways that it might wind up being presented,” Kotani said

“Luckily, through the collaborators I found, we managed to create an actual show out of it.”

Because his piece was meant to have interaction, a simple reading of the script or a pre-recorded show would have taken away from the concept. Therefore, he and his team settled on a live show over Zoom. 

A physical audience wasn’t present, but those viewing his one-man show could tune into the comment section in Zoom. Conversations were sparked during the performance, with or without Kotani’s prompting. For parts of the show, he deliberately asked for participation – allowing viewers to speak with him directly by tuning into the Zoom call. However, most opted to offer their thoughts through silent comments.

“To a certain extent I could still connect with having an audience there,” he said

“The audience was allowed to just chat at will in the Zoom chat, which normally you wouldn’t let regular audiences chat amongst themselves for a whole show,” 

He had to learn how to draw from the audience’s comments, versus the energy in the room. Instead of performing to a living audience, he was now performing to a camera in his basement, and monitoring an online chat.

The name of the show, The Banana Conundrum, comes from an internal struggle that Kotani faces. As a half-Japanese / half-Scottish Canadian, Kotani uses the show to wade through questions and thoughts he has when taking roles in theatre productions. Should he be able to play fully Asian characters – most of which aren’t Japanese? Should he be able to play Scottish characters? Or should he stick to roles cast for his specific race? Should he even care?

His intentions were to pose these questions to the audience, but that became an interesting task to navigate once things changed.

Over two nights of the festival, Kotani performed in his basement, posing his questions to his virtual audience. As audience members of the festival got used to the format, engagement increased for his second performance – with online comments surging in in real time

“I feel a bit more confident as a performer, having performed for 15 minutes by myself,” he said.

For Stuart McDougall, the online format completely changed his project. His production, Elegant Animal, began as an intimate staged production, where he hoped to invite an audience member or two to join the experience.  However, that could no longer happen.

Like the other artists, he had to adapt his idea quickly. While living in Scotland from 2017 to 2019, he had been workshopping the production to fit his original idea – but COVID turned it completely on its head.

Drawing inspiration from podcasts he had been listening to, McDougall began working on a new format for his intimate piece. He wanted to be able to preserve the interactive element of his work, and allow for an ‘active’ audience. However, that now needed to be an online experience, translated into the comfort of the viewers homes.

“One of the main kind of images we had was that we wanted an audience member to be able to come up on stage and take a bath,” McDougall said.

“They have to be at home – they can take a bath while they’re at home. It’ll have an effect, developing into almost an interactive podcast.”

And that’s exactly what happened. What started as a critique on modern self-care became a podcast, guiding the audience through a self-care experience. To do this, McDougall created a couple elements. 

To bring his vision into the homes of his audience members, he put self-care ‘kits’ together that he delivered to doorsteps. He put together his own podcasts, using personal testimonies from himself and friends about their own self-care. With historical facts and guidance from McDougall, audience members were given a solitary auditory experience designed to provoke thoughts about their own personal care.

To get the desired effect, he split the production into three parts – baking cookies, taking a bath, and dressing yourself up. Each were accompanied by an audio track, made available on Soundcloud. 

Though a majority of the audience compiled their own kits from home, McDougall was able to hand deliver 20 premade kits (at a safe distance), in using some supplies from Apothecary Inglewood. They included ingredients for cookies, as well as some bath bombs and other care products. 

What was missing for McDougall was the audience. Since the ‘show’ took place in people’s homes, he couldn’t foster the same relationship he would have with a live audience. But the online format didn’t change things completely.

“Artists love that connection with the audience, and while [production] was finished, the delivery order became the only connection to the audience I had,” McDougall said 

“It’s really wonderful to actually see the look on people’s faces and stuff when they actually received their kits.”

Unlike conventional performance, this is one the audience is able to keep and replay whenever they need a boost of self-love.

Christian Daly and his improv troupe, tackled the interesting process of converting their performance to an online format. Inspired by the popular kids show, The Wiggles, this improv performance was intended for live family audiences – complete with a musical component.

Naturally, COVID changed their plans. What was going to take place on stage with all players working together with audience members now took place in the comfort of everyone’s home. Like Kotani’s performance, The Giggles now relied on comment suggestions, facilitated through the festival’s live Twitch stream.

As with most improv, there was little rehearsal or structure beyond the general idea of their show. The only preparation the troupe could do was familiarizing themselves with the software and warming up together. 

“We really had no idea what we were doing when we kind of started, so to be able to actually put on a show that we think went fairly smooth and pretty well, it was just really amazing overall,” Daly said.

“It was a lot of fun and just really cool to try something new.”

Producing their show via Zoom did come with some challenges. As improv performers often rely on each other’s nonverbal cues and plenty of performances use physical comedy, a virtual platform turned operations on their heads.

Each performer was alone at home, watching their fellow cast members on a screen and relying on their internet connection to keep things moving smoothly. Simple things like warm ups needed reworking, and they eventually had to take out the musical component. Improvised songs proved to be difficult, so they used simple piano playing to serve as beginnings and ends of scenes instead.

“In the end though, Zoom ended up being almost just as real for us, because you could see the other people and you could hear them. So, I’m glad we got to do that,” said Daly.

When show-time rolled around, The Giggles shone brighter with each performance. Over three shows at 15 minutes a piece, the audience was treated to comedy of the cast. Some used props, but most relied on their imaginations and miming their surroundings.

Whatever the topic was, the chat was alive with ‘laughter’ and commentary, and The Giggles were not at a loss for suggestions. Sure, they didn’t have a physical audience or cast members by their side, but that barely mattered in the end. While they’re likely to return to normal operations when the rest of the world does, the troupe was happy to learn the new format.

“There is a place for this [kind of performance] I think,” Daly said.

Like the rest of the productions for the IGNITE! festival, Tia Christofferson’s show Shellfish Eucharist started as a staged play. When presented with the challenge of adapting her show, Christofferson took the bull by the horns, thrusting herself into the director role.

For Christofferson, directing was not in her sights originally, and she wasn’t fully aware of the work that went into a show. Aspects like promotion and production creation – from start to finish – were new territory for her, but she met the challenge head on.

“One of the actors in my play also has had directing experience, so they were offering me some tips along the way and things like that,” she said.

“I don’t think I would have gotten such a collaborative experience if it had been a regular production.”

Like McDougall, she also drew inspiration from a love of podcasts – which ultimately led to the production becoming an audio play. Through clever audio mixing, Christofferson was able to take the audience on an auditory journey through the life of her main character.

While creating an audio play was a new experience, it turned out to go better than expected. Some planned elements for the original show had yet to be worked out – like how a lobster costume was going to make its way on stage.

In the show, the lobster serves as a key character – coming to life to help guide the main character. However, renting a costume came with a hefty price tag and making one would have been tedious.

“Things like that actually were really helped by this format,” Christofferson said.

Uncertain elements of her script could now come to life through the audiences’ imagination, with the help of ambient and environmental audio. Instead of a physical costume, the lobster was signified by an underwater-esque audio clip. 

“I missed out hearing like, people’s laughter and things like that. That’s one of the things I missed the most that would have been there if it were a live performance,” she said.

“But the chat room on Twitch kind of remedied that as well.”

She was also unable to meet with her voice actors in person, which made virtual rehearsals feel stagnant and slightly impersonal. Though they met on Zoom, each found themselves more tired than a normal rehearsal – their eyes strained and bodies stiff from sitting and staring at a computer screen for hours.

However, the distanced model lent itself to something somewhat unexpected – long distance collaboration. Though most of her crew were somewhere in Calgary, she had multiple crew members across Canada- one in Edmonton, another in Toronto, and one from Winnipeg. Another had sent in an audition tape earlier in the year from Montreal, with plans to move to Alberta closer to the festival.

“It’s not something I probably ever would have done, but I really loved the experience so now I’m going to actually try to get more into directing,” she said.

Learning has been a prevalent theme throughout this year’s IGNITE! Emerging Arts Festival, and Charlotte Hurdman was not exempt.  Her original production had to be transferred from stage to film, and that was a decision that was made quickly.

“We were kind of pressed for time – we didn’t get enough time to do everything that we wanted to do,” Hurdman said.

“There’s definitely pieces missing in filming, because we only had three days to film everything.”

Her 40-page script was condensed into a mere ten pages, with significant portions removed. Though it didn’t turn out as planned, she was still proud of the final product. The 15-minute film took place inside a cramped bathroom, which is a key element that carried through from the original script.  As is common throughout this article, Hurdman did a lot more learning than she ever planned to do.

Having to cut down a script and transfer it to a completely different medium that she had little experience with was a new adventure for her. She had to figure out how she wanted the story to be told, what scenes and information was vital, and ultimately how she wanted it to be filmed. The space she was working in was much smaller than anticipated, so that also required quick adaptation.

Hurdman had to figure out where her perspective was, how close she could get to the actors, and so on. An early idea was to film it as though the camera was in the audience, but the space proved to be too difficult to do that in. Beyond that, she also had to work around her actors’ schedules, which is how they ended up with only three days of filming 

While challenging, there were plenty of aspects that went better than expected. Since the actors had already done a fair amount of rehearsing with the original script, they were already familiar with their characters. Reworking the script didn’t mean that the characters lost their depth, the actors knew them well enough to portray them properly.

For Hurdman, theatre is a comfort zone. She has done most of her work on a stage and behind curtains, and never thought she’d find herself with a camera in hand. Now that she’s branched out into this medium, she is likely to continue experimenting.

“I’m glad that I got a chance to try a different way,” she said.

“It definitely brought a different perspective onto my piece going forward. I’m really excited about that.”

In the future, Hurdman plans to continue working on The Silence, which will likely include elements of film woven into the theatre format. However, the current piece can easily stand by itself. Cramped into a tiny bathroom, the audience is able to feel just as suffocated as the characters as the film progresses.

Though five projects lent their voices, there were a total of eleven shows, all streamed live over Twitch. To keep the ball rolling and the audience entertained between productions, the stream was hosted by Karla Marx, a local Drag Queen. She conducted live interviews with artists after their shows, promoted sponsors, and helped raise money for the festival. 

Though they weren’t featured in this article, the other five productions won’t be missed. To kick things off on Day 1 of the festival, the first episode in a three-part series called Anonymous was aired. Created by Chantel Dixon, this series drew in the audience with its poignant drama and intimate subject matter. It was intended as a staged play, but filming allowed for it to be expanded over three 15-20- minute episodes. 

Naturally this meant more script, and learning how to navigate filming while minding the global pandemic. However, the pandemic found its way into the script in a surprising way. As the series follows members of an Alcoholics Anonymous type group, the current climate of being stuck at home and meeting over Zoom wove its way into the narrative as yet another struggle the characters were dealing with.

Included in the festival were three different dance pieces, all with different stories to tell. In Re:New, dancers twirled around with clothing in an open field. Bypass gripped the audience with its jarring and raw performance, taking place in a darkened studio to reflect society’s current isolation. A Practical Guide to Serenity brought us inside and outside the home, grappling with the repetition of self-help and meditation audio files.

Each dance piece, though different, had a similar effect on the audience. Throughout each performance, viewers were in awe, sharing their observations and feelings for the piece in the Twitch stream chat. This level of interaction added to the festival in a way that would have never been possible with a traditional format. It is not common or appropriate to make comments throughout a performance, yet in this online format, they didn’t disturb things like they would have live. For those that didn’t want the chat active in their window, they could simply hide it from their stream.

While filmed productions were the dominant format, there were still variations. Soul Swap, by Oliver Bailey, was presented as a recorded staged reading of the script, complete with stage directions from the director. The actors read their parts from the safety of their homes, and the full production was streamed on Twitch.  As is common with most productions in this festival, Bailey drew from personal experience, which he combined with a love of sci-fi to create this piece. SoulSwap’s two main characters are transgendered, both early in their transition, and have been given the option to switch bodies. Though the festival saw this piece in a deconstructed way, Bailey plans to produce the show as intended (on stage) when he is able to.

Two more audio based plays were included. Psychotic Bitch by Maezy Dennie was an auditory experience of a psychotic episode that encouraged audience members to take things outdoors. Coupled with personal testimonies and layered audio files, the piece was a deeply intimate creation that strives to foster understanding of mental health. Dennie took her mean-to-be-staged play to a different level by making the switch, giving audience members brief instructions on how to best experience the piece, and how to understand what a day in the life may look like for someone who deals with psychosis.

Good People by Bryan Sandberg takes the audience members through what he has described loosely as “online escape room,” where they must navigate written articles. Podcasts, and videos to uncover the truth of the piece. Like Shellfish Eucharist, this piece draws from personal experiences with discovering one’s sexuality in a religious community. Good People is set of by the heartbreaking suicide of a young gay boy, whose parent refuse to hold a funeral due to their personal beliefs about his sexuality – from there, audience members must traverse a series the online world Sandberg created, paying attention to clues and reading between the lines.

From each creative mind involved in the IGNITE! Emerging Arts Festival, diverse and in-depth ideas and quick adaptation were a common trend. Though most had little time to prepare and none originally intended the production of their final piece, each produced something memorable for this unique online festival. While there is a future somewhere in sight for traditional staged plays to return, the work done by Sage Theatre is sure to leave a long and lasting impact on its artists and the Calgary theatre community.