YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio –When the coronavirus shutdown took effect, musicians adapted by doing online performances alone and in their homes.
That’s not so easily done for live theater with social distancing requirements. You can’t stage a play when all the actors are in different buildings.
But the Mahoning Valley Players are not only doing it – they’re taking on Shakespeare.
Each summer, the Youngstown-based theater company presents a Shakespeare play outdoors.
While MVP cannot present this year’s production, “King Lear,” live and before an audience, it is taking a stab at a groundbreaking video version.
All actors will perform and record their scenes from remote locations. Interaction among the characters will be pieced together by director Michael Dempsey, who will turn it into a complete production.
Originally, the Mahoning Valley Players were to stage the drama in July at the Summer Festival of the Arts at Youngstown State University.
That festival was canceled April 23, but MVP had already decided on a virtual approach a few weeks earlier because it anticipated the cancellation. In earlier years, the troupe presented its annual Shakespeare in the park productions at Morley Pavilion.
Dempsey says the “King Lear” production will be “a weird amalgamation of theater, film acting and video teleconferencing.”
The play will be posted July 10 at Mahoning Valley Players’ Facebook and YouTube platforms.
“We’re taking ‘King Lear’ virtual,” Dempsey says. Because of social distancing requirements, even the rehearsals are being done online via the Zoom teleconferencing app. “The actors will be able to see each other and act off each other,” he says.
Dempsey acknowledges that there is little precedent for the undertaking.
“It’s kind of exciting,” he says. “When faced with the choice of going online or canceling, I felt like every show got canceled and the actors needed something to do to give them continuity and keep working on their craft.”
Actors responded to the opportunity by submitting audition videos; they’re from New York, Los Angeles, everywhere in between, and even Scotland, Wales and England.
Dempsey hit the jackpot for the title role, casting Tom Fulton, a veteran professional actor based in Cleveland. Fulton is the founder and artistic director of The Academy for the Performing Arts in Chagrin Falls, where he teaches Shakespearean acting.
“Tom is Cleveland theater royalty,” Dempsey says.
Fulton is an Equity actor but is donating his services to the production. “Equity rules don’t cover this sort of thing,” Dempsey notes.
“King Lear” is one of Fulton’s favorite Shakespeare plays, and he has directed it and played the title role before.
The video version, however, will be a first for him.
Fulton calls it an experiment.
“It will lack the aspect of live performance, where we’re all together in a room going through a journey into the mind of Lear, and you can’t replicate that,” Fulton says. “But there are other sides to it. You can slow it down and clarify the language. My biggest [issue] is clarity… If everyone knows what is going on, it will still be compelling.”
It’s an emerging format, as Dempsey puts it. As for the challenge of recording each actor separately and then splicing the footage together to create conversation or action on one screen – Dempsey says The Bard almost lends himself to that.
“In some way, Shakespeare [plays are] more adaptable and malleable than something contemporary would be,” he says.
He plans to “push the envelope” in his direction. “I don’t want it to look like ‘The Brady Bunch’ [intro] on Zoom,” he said, with a laugh. “I might have to use green screens. I will push it as far as I can so it doesn’t take you away from the play.”
Dempsey will record each actor individually, and then put the videos of two or more together on screen to depict their interaction. “They will directly address the camera,” he says. “The camera sees things differently than you see them on stage. So the actors have to adjust their acting.”
Fights and other physical scenes that cannot be reproduced in this format will be kept simple. “It’s best to not overreach,” Dempsey says.
The director sees the venture as something that could become part of the theater landscape should the pandemic drag on. “We’ll always prefer live theater, the communal experience, but this could become a part of the future,” Dempsey says.
The director is experienced in this field, having produced, directed, written and edited commercials and promos. “I was creative director of a communications company and have done a lot of freelance stuff over the years,” he says. Dempsey formerly lived in New York and Los Angeles, where he worked in various capacities on film and TV. “But I have never done this particular kind of thing before – remote recording through Zoom,” he says.
The production also requires a different approach from an actor’s perspective as well, because the cast has to be aware of the cameras at all times. “We can see the other people that we are acting with [on the screen]. But the problem is, if I look at the screen, it sees my eyes move to the script,” Fulton says. “So the trick is to learn it so I can keep my attention on the camera. I have to give the feeling that I am looking at somebody.”
Fulton agrees with Dempsey in that Shakespearean plays do transition well to the new format. “Shakespeare was meant to be done on an empty stage,” Fulton says. “The Globe Theater [Shakespeare’s venue] had few props – just stools, thrones, a grassy bank – all else is just actors.”
Shakespeare describes the scene via the dialogue and monologues of the characters, Fulton adds.
“King Lear” is a tragedy about an aging king who divides his land among his daughters, but falls into insanity as his offspring conspire against him.
“It has issues that are relevant today,” Dempsey says. “Mental illness and elder care are stuff that society still struggles with now.”
The director also feels a personal connection to the story.
“I lost both of my parents in a short period of time last year,” he says. “I was their caretaker for many years; and my mom had Alzheimer’s, so I personally went through those things.”
The cast of Mahoning Valley Players’ virtual production of “King Lear” is large, and includes actors from the United Kingdom, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas and Boston. Local actors include John Cox, Liz Conrad, Carla Gipson and a few others.
Pictured: Tom Fulton in a past production of ‘King Lear.’ Fulton will again play the title role in Mahoning Valley Players’ virtual production, which will be posted online in July.