Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride | Durham Savoyards  |  YouTube limited online series weekly, through May 7  |  

In the opening moments of a new YouTube miniseries, a group of kohl-eyed, mooning fangirls pop, one by one, into the panels of an online video conference.

After genuflecting to bedroom posters of their idol—a poet whose brooding visage evokes a glam-era Rasputin—they burst, simultaneously, into an  unlikely song: “Twenty Love-Sick Maidens We,” a tune from the dawn of the 1880s.

The number opens W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera Patience, and the anachronous social media sequence kicks off director Melissa S. Craib Dombrowski’s online modern-day adaptation of the Victorian-era satire for the Durham Savoyards, the region’s long-standing light opera company that was founded in 1963.

The creative team, which includes music director Joanna Sisk-Purvis and video editor John Paul Middlesworth, has split the evening-length work into seven weekly episodes, four of which have rolled out since the March 26 season opener.

The remaining three will debut each Friday through the finale on May 7. Previous segments remain viewable on the company’s YouTube channel.

But why reframe a 140-year-old satire on pretentious artistic fads into an online beef between passionate devotees and detractors of an overly precious, simpering huckster of a poet?

Gilbert and Sullivan made great fun of their culture’s foibles, Dombrowski says, “and those have not changed so much since then.”

Patience, she notes, ultimately looks at “the frivolousness of artistic fashions and how we still tie ourselves up in knots about them. The message is still relevant and very funny.”

But Dombrowski quickly offers another reason for the 21st-century facelift: It isn’t as if the Savoyards had that much choice.

Their first attempt at the present production fell apart in March of last year when Durham’s Carolina Theatre went dark due to COVID-19 less than two weeks before opening night.

“The actors and the people who were building sets, they basically had it all nailed down,” Dombrowski says. “Then they had to dismantle it, which was heartbreaking.”

A rescheduled run last August fell through due to the pandemic. About to pass the two-year mark since their last show—a spring 2019 run of The Mikado—the Savoyards realized they needed a contingency plan that didn’t rely on reopened theaters.

“Since the only venue available to us was the Internet,” Dombrowski recalls, “we chose to lean into that and make a sense of place there.”

For her, modernizing Patience was the only viable decision for its online medium to make sense: “a deliberate artistic choice,” she notes, “rather than something we were stuck with.”

And in doing so, Dombrowski calculated that the sudden shifts in our culture would actually back her move.

“We’ve all had a year where we’ve been separated by screens, where the only way to be connected was to be online,” she notes. “With so many of our live interactions happening through social media, it got to the point that being online, for us, was being live—that that experience became present, presence and immediate for us, since that was all we had.”

“These days,” she concludes, “online is as ‘live’ as many of us still get.”

Putting Gilbert and Sullivan online wasn’t easy. For safety, none of the actors or musicians gathered for rehearsal or production; rehearsals and scenes were done remotely.

An online production of Gilbert’s one-act comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mounted as a trial run last September, revealed that actors on Zoom had to start each line a split-second sooner than they ordinarily would. “Otherwise, it started getting really slow, and Gilbert and Sullivan has to be snappy,” Dombrowski says.

After Sisk-Purvis circulated video guide tracks for each number with pianist Cole Swanson, vocalists, chorus members, and instrumentalists in the orchestra recorded and submitted their parts separately. Sisk-Purvis then assembled the audio files in Logic Pro and mixed the final soundtrack. Middlesworth did the same with video footage and the dialogue of the singers.

“It took so much time,” Sisk-Purvis admits, “but it’s worked.”

With two fully mounted productions and no revenue from ticket sales, the Savoyards is counting on public donations to cover its costs. “We need our community’s support,” Dombrowski says.

Throughout production planning, the company chose to make the show more accessible to larger audiences. They resolved not to place it behind a monetizing paywall.

Then, they decided to divide it into user-friendly episodes. “The general feeling is that most people watch about 15 to 20 minutes on YouTube before they’re done,” Dombrowski says.

In the process, a work that once could be accessed only through pricey tickets—with an entire evening invested—becomes available to anyone with an Internet connection and 20 to 30 minutes of spare time.

“It has the potential to reach a much wider audience than we normally do,” Sisk-Purvis says.

An early, significant signal that that’s working came when Sisk-Purvis showed an episode to a group of middle schoolers.

“They thought it was hilarious,” she says. “The online chats and memes helped make it really clear what was going on. They might not have gotten some of the older references, but who does these days. That was really exciting.”

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