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Making Theater in the Time of COVID 

click to enlarge Hannah Shaka and Marguerite Boissonault perform their piece.

Photo by Zach Lathouris

Hannah Shaka and Marguerite Boissonault perform their piece.

About a millennium ago (OK, in March of this year), Dell'Arte MFA students in their final year were preparing their thesis productions. Then came the Great Shutdown. No more live performances for audiences that provide the ultimate feedback for actors.

The school proposed students continue working on their productions remotely and perform via Zoom. Most of the students were able to adjust their pieces to meet the new circumstances but, for Hannah Shaka and Marguerite Boissonault, whose collaborative piece was built around and relied on aerial silks, working separately simply was not an option. So the two worked with the school to develop protocols that would enable them to work in the same space, unmasked, and for their actual thesis performances to be filmed. Boissonault moved into Dell'Arte student housing, which operates on an agreed pod honor system to keep each other healthy and accountable, while Shaka continued to live alone.

In many ways, the situation was a blessing in disguise. The duo had plenty of time and space to work together, "more like a residency than schoolwork — almost a bonus semester." The biggest change they had to make was to recast the piece as a two-hander when their original third collaborator couldn't meet the protocol requirements. And it was that change that drove the creation of the final piece, Jumella (from jumelle, the French word for twin).

Two performers, intimately connected on the stage and in life. The parallels with finding comfort in a time of social isolation are rich with possibilities. Who are we when we are taken out of the context of our normal physical landscape? What are we really searching for when we seek connection with others? How does separation impact relationships? Twin-dom is the very essence of connectedness — together from the womb, as children and adults facing a universe that wants to define as separate the two halves of a singular whole.

Set against a stark black backdrop of woven red silks and a bottomless abyss, Shaka and Boissonault take us back and forth in time, in and out of their childhood fantasy sanctuary world of Jumella. It is there that we meet Muckle, a dragon whose fire-breathing powers have been stolen by the weaver of words, a magical spider with an enticing French accent and a fabulous eight-legged Balinese mask that she wears upside down. Muckle challenges the girls to reclaim his powers in exchange for being able to stay together forever in Jumella — a challenge in which failure could spell the end of a dream or death.

Jumella is a wide-ranging exploration of what holds twins together when outside forces try to pull them apart. How each twin complements and completes the other. The performers dangle before us intriguing story threads — glimpses into childhood and even in-utero memories, hints of a disturbed upbringing, and the impact of separation on an adult twin.

It is an ambitious piece that touches on many manifestations of separation and togetherness, isolation and connection. It's clearly a work in progress, but that does not detract from the power at its core. Shaka and Boissonault are hoping to tour the production and plan to allow the piece to evolve organically over time. I, for one, am very much looking forward to future iterations once it is safe for live theatre to resume.

The simple costumes reinforce the performers' twin-ness, while the intricately carved masks pull them apart. The silks are used effectively for both aerial performance and as temporary set elements spun out by the weaver of words. Working their magic behind the scenes were production manager Alexander Diaz and lighting maestro Michael Foster. Janessa Johnsrude was the students' faculty advisor and Leslie Castellano provided the aerial silks training.

Dell'Arte was able to get approval from the Department of Health and Human Services for the private three-night filming because its space is classified as "office workspace," since the school's office logistics, training and exercises require a workspace to be done effectively. This allowed students and staff to work within the scope of COVID protocols already in place and for invited guests to watch and give feedback to the artists being filmed. The guest list was capped at 18 and all guests were required to have their temperatures taken upon entrance, wear a mask at all times and sign the same liability waiver that all the enrolled students do. The first two rows of seats were closed, as the performers were unmasked, and 18 seats were designated across the remainder of the auditorium to maintain social distancing; there were no concessions, no box office and no public ticket sales.

On a personal note, I feel truly blessed to have been able to participate in this experience live — there really is nothing quite like the crackling energy of live theater. The composite video of the three performances shot and edited by videographer Zach Lathouris should be available via Dell'Arte's website at www.dellarte.com and YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/DellArteIntl later this month.

Opening

Dell'Arte's 40th annual holiday show Hansel and Gretel will be taped and broadcast by KEET at the end of November. There are also plans for Facebook Live streams, Zoom performances for schools and drive-in-movie style wall projection performances viewable from cars. All performances will be free. More details on the Dell'Arte website at www.dellarte.com.

Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired, but you know how that goes.

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