Technology / 06.30.20
Actor Jay O. Sanders on Staging the First Mega-Successful Zoom Play
In the early days of the pandemic, when the country was beginning to shut down commerce, schools, sports and the arts, Zoom quickly became an essential part of daily life for many groups: corporate staff, small business owners, church congregations, friends, etc.
It wasn’t long before the performing arts world embraced the videoconferencing platform, too. Zoom soon became both the medium and the subject of several new works of art. One of the most ambitious has been The Public Theater’s production of “What Do We Need to Talk About?” The Zoom-specific play was written by Richard Nelson, reuniting the Rhinebeck, New York-based characters from his popular series of Apple family plays over a Zoom call as they reacted to the emerging COVID-19 crisis.
The hour-long performance was streamed live via YouTube on the evening of Wednesday, April 29, with the original cast — Jon DeVries, Stephen Kunken, Sally Murphy, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins and Jay O. Sanders — all calling in from their respective homes to act out the isolated, yet still quirky and opinionated members of the fictional clan doing the same. The result was an eight-week “run” on YouTube, which received rave reviews and more than 80,000 unique views from people in over 30 countries. Those who felt inclined were encouraged to donate to The Public Theater.
The production was so successful that Nelson has penned a second Zoom play for the cast that begins streaming July 1 on YouTube and will be similarly available for eight weeks. It’s titled “And So We Come Forth: The Apple Family: A Dinner on Zoom.”
I recently sat down with Jay O. Sanders to talk about “What Do We Need to Talk About?” Sanders has been a versatile character actor for the past four decades. In movies and TV, his name is one you see in the credits billed anywhere from second or third to 12th or 15th. He has played General George Crockett Strong in “Glory”; lead investigator Lou Ivon in “JFK”; sportscaster Ranch Wilder in “Angels in the Outfield”; Dennis Quaid’s ill-fated colleague in “The Day After Tomorrow”; Dan’s biker buddy, Ziggy, on “Roseanne”; evangelist Billy Lee Tuttle on “True Detective”; and a number of other roles both big and small on the big and small screens.
Sanders has an equally impressive stage resume, but he’d never done anything like “What Do We Need to Talk About?” before. “It was my first Zoom play,” he says, “and one of the first ever done. We have been written about by many critics as marking the first example of Zoom art — taking what was formerly a conferencing tool and writing directly for it. Rehearsing from our own homes over Zoom worked out quite well because everything we were learning and dealing with on the format became a performance tool.”
Luckily, the actors were all familiar with the format, having done Zoom calls with their respective families. Nelson, who also served as director, would call in to their rehearsals and make himself invisible. They would all then gather at the end of run-throughs, visibly, to talk through adjustments.
Part of the challenge was Sanders and the cast reacquainting themselves with characters they had played years earlier. “The Apples are human and complex and smart and vulnerable, and they need to talk to each other,” Sanders says. “And audiences, I think, find a lot of interesting ideas expressed in a recognizable everyday family way. The banality of our conversations about cooking or home tasks uncovers the deeper, profound need to be together and, hopefully, the audience feels that as a way in. We are merely living in the present-day world and reflecting on what it means to be alive right now.”
As an actor, the biggest difference in performing via Zoom as opposed to live on a stage, Sanders says, was that it “was remarkably direct because it is an intimate setting — you and your camera looking straight at who you’re playing with on the screen. We could be heard easily, which allowed us to find more colors of intimacy like on film, which are harder to achieve on the stage. The satisfaction came from all sides: working with my wife, Maryann [who played Mr. Rogers’ wife, Joanne, in last year’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”]; my dear friend, Richard; and Sally, Laila and Stephen, who I’ve known and played with for many years now. Then, for the play to be so well-received and watched on over 80,000 screens across 30 countries and all to great acclaim — it’s just been an unexpected gift.”
For Sanders and Plunkett, who play brother and sister in the play, it was also fun to stage their West Village apartment as if it were Barbara Apple’s home in Rhinebeck. The couple sought advice on making sure the sound and lighting were correct from The Public’s tech team.
With their success, it’s no surprise other theatres around the country are now looking to mount similar Zoom productions. For those artistic directors, Sanders has some words of wisdom and encouragement. “Talk and listen,” he says. “It is the need to communicate that makes our exchanges alive. And with the directness of focus, having each other right there in front of you, it’s easily available to you.”
He also strongly urges taping a dress rehearsal — just in case. On the night before the April 29 live show, he and his fellow cast members gathered for a formal dress rehearsal as they would if it were a stage show. The Public taped that dress rehearsal in the event that any tech issues arose the night of the performance.
But as successful as “What Do We Need to Talk About?” has been, Sanders doesn’t expect Zoom plays or virtual plays will replace live, in-person productions in the future after the virus has been eradicated and the stage doors are allowed to reopen. “There certainly could be more Zoom plays in the future,” he says, “but I think the magic of coming together in the same place and feeling each other’s presence, both actors and audience, will never be replaced. It is the essence of theatre and community and is essential for our mental and spiritual health. We are considering life together, and that can’t happen the same way remotely.”
Sanders isn’t stopping with just the Nelson plays. During the pandemic, he has narrated a couple of documentaries for PBS, performed Zoom readings of plays as benefits for other theatres struggling at this time, and, most recently, he did a new monologue by the writer Rajiv Joseph for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. “I read it and really liked it,” he says. “So, I memorized it and then Rajiv and I had a discussion/rehearsal on Zoom. And, just today, I filmed myself on my cellphone. We have so much technology available to us these days. It will be out on social media to raise money for the theater.”
Sanders concludes, “These are particularly challenging times, to say the least. I had just opened in a lead role on Broadway in a wonderful show, ‘Girl From The North Country,’ which was a huge critical hit. And then Broadway was closed down exactly one week later. So, life has been an avalanche of circumstances, but we’ll get through it together. Hopefully, the Apples have been a part of helping with that.”
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Tags: Theater , Venues , COVID-19 , Coronavirus