How We Started Virtual Arts, A “Live” Virtual Theatre Company

Virtual Arts was conceived as a way to help ease the silence in the arts community during the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic in early April 2019. Immediately upon feeling the hopelessness in the voices of fellow artists as theatres were temporarily shuttered, we decided to focus our energy in the one place that could not be locked down, our creative minds.

We gathered a small group of writers, directors, technicians and actors to produce “live” plays and discussions via a virtual platform so that we could continue engage creatively in a safe environment.

Our first participants were a group of actors, directors and production staff who had worked with the award-winning interactive play, Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding, during the course of a thirty-year run, in more than ten cities across the United States.

We set up our first group Zoom call. Once the actors had gathered, we pitched the idea of taking a live interactive theatre production and transforming it into a live virtual interactive theatre production. The ideas was greeted with some skepticism but it was decided that we should begin rehearsals. By the end of that call, the majority of the group was encouraged and ready for action.

Theatre Across America In Transition

As we worked, we began to see live theatre across the nation transition from stage to screen (small screen) and the result was a new and unique theatrical experience.

Final Dress Rehearsal. Typically, this is a sh-t show and we succeeded. It was a complete wreck of missed cues, technical hiccups and blank screens. It was wonderful!

While we remembered with fondness the stage curtain, our vision led us to a black screen that kept the audience waiting. On the screen was a card that read “Our show starts in fifteen minutes”. We chose music to get the audience into the mood – a virtual overture – and we chose images and questions for those waiting to see the show as added entertainment. We had a logo built and invitations delivered. No paper ticket needed. An audience member only had to have a link, the time, the date and a device to sit in the digital theatre of Virtual Arts.

The pre-show hum of excited audience members reading programs and settling into their seats was replaced with the chat feature. We soon discovered in a world dominated by social media that this was a similar and satisfying equivalent. Finally, a host appears on the screen and “in character”, takes the audience through the many ways that they can be involved in the night’s performance. The host greets everyone on the chat and asks the audience to greet the host back. “Hello Las Vegas!” “Hi from Chicago.” “Break a leg from Kansas City.”

Then the play begins, and like magic, we are performing live again. We don’t hear the audience laugh but we see their comments in chat. We used cellphones to communicate to stage managers, we see a grand entrance of an important moment thwarted by the mute button – but it’s live theatre and the audience chats “You’re muted!” The actor is unmuted, and just like a forgotten line it becomes a moment of improvisation and joy as issues are solved and the play goes on. Shakespeare would have loved it. His audience would have thrown digital tomatoes.

Virtual live theatre is no less nerve wracking than in person live theatre. Our pulses exploded and we made our way, screen by screen, moment by moment and the play unfolded and was shared with an audience. Our First Performance.  After six months of weekly and then daily virtual sessions, we launched a full interactive digital production of Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding as a fundraiser for the Nevada based Composers Showcase Entertainment Community Relief Fund on October 8, 2020. We did our production “live” with fifteen actors from three different time zones, a director in the

Northwest, production coordinators on the East Coast and a live band tucked neatly into a house in Las Vegas. We paid our actors and technicians and we helped raise a substantial amount of money for the benefit of other actors not as fortunate as we were.

The performance of a live interactive play usually depends on rubbing up against audience and perspiring as we dance together, eat together and laugh together. Instead, we found ourselves and our audience staring into screens and following the story visually and interactively on the chat. It was hard to make a decision on which to watch – the screen or the chat. We didn’t serve food (hard to do from state to state on a screenJ) but we did share what we were snacking on and cocktails flowed freely in the audience.

Our first performance was a race to share a new style of theatre that was just beginning to wake in the minds of the world and we were there, moving from moment to moment and learning to hold for laughs and mug for more.

We shared visions of the audience delighted and stunned to be seen on screen. The chat lit up and the actors continued. Audience stood. Audience sat. Audience laid down on a couch and watched from the comfort of home. There was no curtain call, but an audience Q&A gave way to cheers and questions. Wonderment about how we had achieved this moment was mostly without answers because we had never looked back on this extraordinary journey.

And when it was all said and done, theatre is theatre is theatre. Our first very appreciative audience shared text messages and congratulations via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, much like the dazzling frenzy of the after-show lobby. Sometimes an entire group of actors shared best remembered moments of shock and success. Laughs among us led to pride in our achievement.

We missed the paper programs, the combined scent of an audience in close quarters and the hugs of joy but we had re-envisioned our first live virtual production in a new way that felt rewarding and fulfilling. We had dreamed. And the decision was made to move Virtual Arts ahead into the ever-expanding world of theatre rethought.

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