Women’s Theatre Festival

Friday, May 29–Saturday, June 6, various times, $10  

An actor’s phone dies during a tech rehearsal for the disturbing drama Freakshow, which the Women’s Theatre Festival opens this Friday, and rehearsal grinds to a halt.

Were this a normal stage production, the glitch would be a theatrical nonevent—a personal inconvenience and nothing more. But the phone’s camera is all that connects the actor, alone at home in Raleigh, to the production. Hers is one of 23 simultaneous feeds streaming through the two computers necessary to process the signals before the show goes online.

Stage manager Ali Ray is monitoring the incoming streams. She stays unflappable while crisply directing actors on Zoom to take down the feeds from their laptops, phones, and webcams, and then turn them on again in a certain order. Moments later, the show’s “grid,” now correctly sequenced, is restored and loaded into a powerful video-switching, design, and encoding application called OBS.

Rehearsal begins again, and playwright Carson Kreitzer’s beguiling story of a traveling “freak show” at the dawn of the twentieth century unfolds.

After set designer Ami Kirk Jones’s circus tent miniatures set the scene, the suave, enigmatic ringmaster, Mr. Flip (Tori Grace Nichols), appears at the center of tech director Anthony Buckner’s intricate video design: an ever-shifting mosaic of windows, show posters, and cameos, set against the faded, jaded stripes of an old-time big-top.

The screen fills with an outlandish cadre of performers, who surround Flip, each in their own sub-window. Clowns mug and preen as the diffident Human Salamander (Jordan Biggers) peers at us over the lip of a water-filled tub and the microcephalic Daniel (Clare Vestal) hums a tuneless song in his cage.

Then, in a Victorian picture frame, the group’s improbable leader emerges: the charismatic, manipulative Amalia, The Woman With No Arms Or Legs (Kariey Anne Smith). The carnival’s undeniable main attraction deftly controls her surroundings with flashes of warmth and quick, worldly wit, which partly mask a chilly, calculating intellect. Ultimately, these are Amalia’s only defenses against the world’s indifference, neglect, and randomness, and the darker impulses of the crowds who come to see her.

The 90-minute drama is a most improbable outcome for a theatrical production that, just two months ago, seemed doomed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But as many other theater and dance groups went dark, the Women’s Theatre Festival kept finding ways to produce work.

In the absence of much other theatrical activity in the country, executive artistic director Johannah Maynard Edwards worked with her national network of women in theater to produce the Virtual Plays Club, a weekly series that ran through March and April, prior to production work on Freakshow. Edwards not only got permission from leading playwrights like Lauren Gunderson and Pulitzer finalist Clare Barron to livestream virtual staged readings of their works; the playwrights also agreed to participate in online public conversations after the shows.

But the only way to salvage the flagship production of this summer’s festival was by taking it entirely online. That involved devising ways for sequestered actors to rehearse online and coming up with the technical design necessary to coherently assemble them on the same screen.

Luckily, the stage manager and lighting designer of Freakshow both had extensive backgrounds in online video production. Ray had learned the ins and outs of Zoom as a stage-management technician at the University of Kentucky, and Buckner had produced online educational video programming for N.C. State University.

With Jones and co-directors Rowen Haigh and Rachel Pottern Nunn, they came up with an approach that could conceivably translate a stage play into a hybrid of genres and technologies that would work online.

In the process, a theater company transformed itself, in two short months, into an ad hoc video-production unit that could roll with the punches of live performance. OBS should help minimize lags and glitches, but nothing’s certain on this uncharted terrain.

“OBS and Zoom weren’t designed for this, and Carson’s play clearly wasn’t designed for this,” Edwards says, laughing. “But there’s something to be said for meeting a historical moment with innovation, passion, and imagination. Every collaborator was able to say ‘yes, and’ as we do in improv, and pivot their training into a new format, a new medium.”

Despite the predictable snags of tech rehearsal, the resulting show suggests a mélange of genres. The poetic, gritty gravitas of Kreitzer’s script echoes groundbreaking TV series like Playhouse 90, which presented live weekly dramas by young literary lions like Gore Vidal in the 1950s. Buckner’s video mosaic of simultaneous points of view recalls Peter Greenaway films like The Pillow Book.

And of course, there’s live theater’s sense of risk—the knowledge that anything could happen, at any moment, to make tonight’s performance unforgettable and unique. It’s heightened by the fact that the tightrope being walked is not only artistic but also technological.

WTF will broadcast five live performances of Freakshow. It debuts at midnight on Friday, May 29, followed by a Saturday show at 8:00 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 5:00 p.m. Then it returns at 8:00 p.m. next Friday and Saturday. Buy at ticket for $10 to receive a private link.

One thing hasn’t changed: “Seating” is limited. Due to publisher and playwright contracts, each show’s audience will be capped at 99. 

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