Since the pandemic forced theatres to close their doors in mid-March, there has been no shortage of noble attempts to recreate the magic of the stage on streaming platforms including Zoom, Instagram Live and YouTube (where the Broadway interview show “Stars in the House” streams two theatre productions daily). Virtual theatre productions, of course, are mediated through technology and thus not experienced as they would be from the front mezzanine, and yet they’re not fully polished or always prerecorded, either. Part of the thrill of theatre is its immediacy and, along with it, the potential for something to fall to pieces. That aspect remains perfectly intact, and recent performances have been felled by late starts, spotty internet and A/V connections, missed cues and poor lighting. “It can all feel like the local portions of the Jerry Lewis telethon,” jokes the producer and writer Jonathan Tolins. “As though these actors might be in their laundry rooms.”
Surely, stumbles can be endearing — who wouldn’t delight in watching Jake Gyllenhaal, bathed in yellowish light, belt “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park With George” (1983) in front of an average-looking window blind? — and all the more so because they are relatable. Increasingly, us non-thespians, too, are expected to present ourselves via digital platforms, and to issue compelling performances, whether for a conference meeting, a job interview, a friendly catch-up or an Instagram Live segment about cutting a spouse’s hair. Really, all the digital world’s a stage. So, for help navigating it, why not look to Broadway?
Luckily, in addition to trials, there have been triumphs. Sometimes this has been on account of the choice of work. Intimate narratives with homey settings, such as “Buyer & Cellar,” Tolins’s 2013 one-man play about an actor hired to work as a faux shopkeeper in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement, a benefit revival of which Broadway.com livestreamed last month, make for easier transfers, requiring less coordination and perhaps less suspension of disbelief from their audiences. But that production’s team was also thoughtful about technical aspects — in his midtown apartment, Michael Urie, its star, had three ring lights (circular fixtures that distribute light evenly), two cameras and one cameraman (his partner, Ryan Spahn). A two-camera setup might be overkill for your standard Zoom call, but chances are a few of the below tips will feel doable and help you stand out from the crowd amid the stranger-than-fiction reality we’re all living.
Clothes and makeup can be important — dress the part but stay away from houndstooth, which might register onscreen as a dizzying blur — but lighting, which can be the difference between looking like yourself and a washed-out or shadowy version thereof, is a trickier art. On its own, the fluorescent light emitted from digital devices is about as flattering as that from a bug zapper. First, set your computer between an external light source and your desk chair, so that your face acquires a glow. Your computer can also give you a boost: While delivering the introductory remarks for the streaming run of “Buyer & Cellar,” Tolins had his computer’s desktop background set to solid yellow to create a warmer tone and add a bit of dimension to his complexion, which is on the paler side. For those with darker skin tones, the comedic performer Ziwe Fumudoh, who writes for the late-night comedy series “Desus & Mero” and films weekly Instagram Live shows from her Bushwick apartment, suggests “a whitish, bluish” light, which can be achieved with Apple’s night mode. As of late, Fumudoh has also been using a Fotodiox ring light to remove pesky shadows and illuminate the eyes.
Not that a natural look is always the right one. Alex Bickel, a film colourist responsible for the iconic bluish tint in “Moonlight” (2016), recently bought a smart LED light from Philips that, when installed in a floor lamp or a flashlight, offers a seemingly infinite mix of colours and special effects and transforms the whole room. (Bickel chose a flickering lavender option for a kaleidoscopic thank-you video he messaged to a friend, an emergency-room doctor in New York.) And Sam Levy, a cinematographer who’s worked with Greta Gerwig and Frank Ocean, among others, and his wife, the filmmaker Karen Cinorre, have been experimenting with taping coloured gel swatches by Lee Filters over their camera lenses. These sorts of overlays are also popular with Broadway technicians tasked with setting the mood onstage. Purple might be used for a cheerful pantomime, the brand’s website suggests, whereas a Victorian melodrama might call for a pale green. Levy also recommends using Photo Booth or your camera app to get a preview of your light and look before an important call.
Camera (and Set and Sound)
You don’t have to worry much about the camera device itself, which however unkind, is essentially fixed when it comes to standard streaming platforms. But there are other staging elements that benefit from attention. “Watching all of these new productions on Zoom or YouTube, you can tell who knows how to film themselves and who doesn’t,” says Sara Isaacson, a Los Angeles-based casting director who consults actors on the dos and don’ts of self-taped auditions. “I always tell my actors to make sure there are no distractions behind them, like a refrigerator door or a dying plant,” she says. She recommends painting a small square of any available wall space a neutral colour so that the background won’t take away from the action at hand.
For sound purposes, you might want to cover your other walls with blankets. Soon after Alison Koch was brought on as the digital content producer of “Soundstage,” Playwrights Horizons’s audio-only play and musical project, she says she realised that “recording episodes while huddled in a makeshift studio in a dressing room wasn’t going to cut it.” And so the team decamped to professional studios, which naturally offer top-of-the-line compressors, microphone preamplifiers and more. But Gary Atturio, a sound engineer and mixer who has worked on both musical episodes for the series, one being Kirsten Childs’s “Edge of Night” (out next month), says that some aspects of a studio can be imitated at home. “You want a room that’s very isolated — no street noise, no air conditioning, no cat meowing — and then you want to eliminate that boxy sound you’d get in a new, empty apartment.” In addition to blankets, furniture also helps dampen reverberation. “It’s actually more about the room than the microphone,” Atturio says, though decent dedicated mics, which provide a cleaner, more focused sound than internal laptop models, are available for just over $100.
But what if you need a set with drama, or simply want to enjoy the nice weather and take a call on your porch or fire escape? Earlier this month, the actor and producer Erich Bergen did a location scout (via FaceTime) of Bette Midler’s Dutchess County, N.Y., home for a virtual appearance the actress was set to make at a gala for the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit that Midler founded in 1995 to support city gardens and parks, and landed, fittingly, on a corner of her garden. “When filming outside,” he warns, “be wary that an iPhone microphone can only carry sound from so far away.” In other words, speak into the mic. And, should a great gust of wind or honking trunk pass by, mute accordingly.
“Eye line is super important. I don’t want to feel like I’m being stared at directly in an audition, so it’s better to look slightly to the side of the lens,” says Isaacson. Though she adds that she occasionally encounters someone “who refuses to look at me and only shows their profile, which is really weird.” On most devices, there’s a green light right next to the lens, which is a good place to gaze (make sure that your camera is sitting just above eye-level, which will show your face at a favourable angle and encourage good posture). And, it goes without saying, try not to stare at the image of your visage projected back at you. (If you can’t help yourself, you may be meant for the stage after all — nevertheless, opt to hide self-view.) Another place not to look would be your notes — Tolins, for example, taped a printout of his speech to his monitor — or the room around you. The camera doesn’t lie, and you never know when someone might pin your image and get a detailed view of you barely listening, or nervously ad-libbing.
The last step might be to not think about anything you just read. “Give yourself time to get set up and make sure everything works. That peace of mind will come through and allow you to forget about the devices and just focus on connecting with people,” says Levy. Finally, if something does go wrong, just do your best to recover and get on with the show. “I don’t like that we’re here,” Levy adds, “but I like the honesty and the human persistence built into this moment.”
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