Storytelling in Liminal Space

A Rumination about the University of Idaho’s upcoming and first virtual production, Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists.

Last week, was the design presentation for The Revolutionists. Since we are living in a pandemic, it was done via Zoom.

Happy Mess, the show I have been dramaturging the last month and a half, was a workshop piece for the First Bite series. It had a staged reading and is expected to have a production in the spring but The Revolutionists is the first production of the fall season AND the first production since the University of Idaho’s Theatre Arts Department was forced to shut down performances two days after The Moors had opened last March.

Before Covid-19, the department was streaming lectures and running a distance learning program. They produced their own spring commencement when the official plenary ceremony was cancel due to the pandemic. Over the summer, two staged readings were performed.

So the department wasn’t new to streaming. And as the fall semester approached, the faculty was already poking at the problem and looking for ways to continue to provide practical experience for its students.

A very long time ago when I was an undergrad, practical experience was one of the program’s major selling points. At the big schools, it was difficult to have your designs realized but at Idaho you graduated with that. You had the chance to perform on stage.

A difficulty with Zoom is well, it’s not a theatre. Nor is it film or TV. And that has been written and talked about at length. But it is there and it’s what many groups have chosen to work with. I’m more appreciative of what’s been done with it and used its strengths than the crying about it. (Yes, I’ve done my share of crying).

The Revolutionists’ design team hit this show hard. Director Carly McMinn mentioned being unsure if the team would go for the idea when she pitched it but they loved it. Part of it involved tracing the different historical waves of U.S. feminism.

But the overarching plan that I really liked was that they designed for the Forge Theater, the university black box space. They did it knowing full well the show would be Zoomed.

I loved this. The first part of the presentation was from concept to idealized production or dream show. They created a brilliant world for that known stage space. There was the set design with central pieces especially the role of the guillotine. The lighting design and moving from candles to a rock n roll feel. Sound had different moods of music to underscore moments of the story and color transitions. Another reason, many of the Zoom productions I’ve watched, the designers are left on the sidelines.

And the best part was how fucking excited they were. And it got me excited. Which I didn’t think was possible as I was already stoked to see the show. They didn’t need to get me amped. Already there.

Top left: Jesse Dreikosen, Head of Design and Technology in Theatre, moderates “The Revolutionists” Design Presentations.

Second part, the reality. The Zoom production. There they discussed how they were going to move from the dream show into a streamed production. Translating the dream show, what were the important elements? How to convey them into the minimalistic environment of Zoom? And so on.

From a design perspective, this approach seemed like a positive way to work. Instead of stopping at actor, laptop, backdrop but to go past that to a full in a theatre production. What would you do? Then return and figure out how to pull those elements into the streaming.

Once again, a program giving its student practical experience in resolving challenges.

Author: Ariana B

writer, anthropologist, artist, dramaturg

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