We had the world premiere of Sperm Donor Wanted last night. It was really fun.

Because we had attended various live online theater events where an actor’s mic dropped in the middle of the show or the stream cut out for somebody, we decided to pre-record the show the night before. We premiered it on Vimeo, and then were able to have the event roll right into a live Q&A with the actors. Audience members submitted questions in the Vimeo chat, and dramaturgs Toby Malone and Anna Chichester (from subTEXT Solutions), sorted through the questions and facilitated the talkback. Overall, about 60 people watched this premiere performance and the talkback. It was weird; even for the talkback, we couldn’t see or hear the audience. But the questions were fun, and seeing friends and family typing “APPLAUSE” in the Vimeo chat during the “curtain call” was … fun. More fun than I thought. I also was able to share this experience with people who live so far away, they wouldn’t see one of my shows in “normal time.” So having my aunt in Connecticut, coworker in New York, sister-in-law in Arizona, friends in Ohio, and brother in Colorado all able to watch it was wonderful.

My mom and stepdad watching it from the dock at their vacation location.

If you missed it, you can still watch the performance, through 7 pm on September 1. It’s also a fundraiser for PAAL, and it’s not too late to donate!

Pre-recording was weird, because I couldn’t quite figure out whether to think of it as a performance or a rehearsal. Since we didn’t have an audience, we had a couple false starts. Once it was rolling, we didn’t stop until intermission. But the possibility was always there; it didn’t have the flying-without-a-net feeling of a true live performance. My brain couldn’t figure out where to put it.

I took this picture that night, and posted it to the event with the note:

Anatomy of a Zoom director:

Brilliant cast on two different windows, one for Zoom with minimal lag, the other on Vimeo, laggier but able to show how everyone’s laid out “on stage.”

Also their Zoom audio on my headphones, left ear only.

Bluetooth in my right ear, talking to the booth backchannel via Discord on my phone.

Notebook because I forgot this isn’t rehearsal, we’re recording, nobody needs my dumb notes.

Script in lap, to follow along—I never do that for a live performance because it’s obnoxious, why am I doing it now? Zoom directing scrambles everything.

Watch on my wrist because I can’t do rehearsal time on a digital clock. I have to see the minutes disappearing like so many slices of pie. Also, this isn’t rehearsal, and I keep forgetting that. It’s the day of the show, ya’ll.

Messy dresser because I don’t have a desk so I just shoved everything over.

Picture from my first pregnancy, not intentional (this is just the spot where it always is), but of course relevant to the theme.

Funny expression because this was a tough shot to get and my arms aren’t long enough.

Clearly, I need to sort out my feelings about this whole thing.

I learned a ton from doing this project, both about the potential of online theater, and about my own process. Next time, I’ll definitely allow for more rehearsal time. I guessed low, because I am such a physical director, I had a hard time imagining what I might do with time but no bodies. It turns out, I had plenty to work with and could have filled double the rehearsal time. I also found that some of the habits I rely on in physical space, weren’t available. I often rely on my memory of what we’ve physically staged to track development; my auditory memory isn’t as reliable. Virtual theater will probably teach me better habits around that, ones I’ll be grateful for once I stop being annoyed about needing to develop them. I usually close a tough night of rehearsal by taking a moment to stand in a circle and breathe together, by locking up the space and making sure everyone gets safely on their way. These rituals weren’t available. I need to find new ones for this imaginary space.

The technical possibilities ended up being really exciting. We worked with the Patrick Mathis of the Entertainment Engineering Collective to create the technical aspects of the show. This included sound effects in real time (like the “DING” when emails came in), as well as the ability to arrange the actors’ streams on the canvas of the screen in real time, using a software called OBS. I was able to create “blocking” in advance and send it to Pat, and he built cues that hid actors’ video streams when they went “offstage,” and changed the size and arrangement of the video layouts.

This is an example of what OBS let us do. In this scene, Brett was always on the bottom center, with Katherine always on the top right and Dom always on the top left. The actors didn’t have to touch their cameras.

Some things were undeniably challenging; eye contact is impossible in this format, and when an actor is looking at her scene partner’s Zoom feed, her eyes might be away from her webcam. Being in the same “place” was really hard.

And yet. This script, by TJ Young, is compelling and rich. The actors were excellent, and they brought all of their focus to bear on the work. Their focus was so solid, and they were working so hard to connect with each other across all this distance, it…happened. At times, I felt like I could see the lines of energy connecting them. There’s something to be said for the power of believing really hard. This script gave us a place to meet each other.

This script gave us all a lot to chew on.

Working with actors who would, under normal circumstances, be too far from each other to possibly experience a collaboration, is a special benefit of this strange time. A silver lining. It’s not the same as being in physical space. It’s no replacement for live theater. There is no replacement. But it was a fantastic experience, and inspired me to start thinking about what other projects I might want to do in this format.

I’m forever grateful to TJ Young, as well as the actors: Katherine Mayberry (Lisa), Katherine Stein (Bex), Brett Sullivan Santry (Charles), Dom Damron (Aaron), and Scott Lange (stage directions). This was such a wonderful and strange experience.

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