Playing with the possibilities of Zoom

Panida ‘virtual theater production’ Coffee Shop brings the stage into viewers’ homes

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Everyday life for the past 10 months or so has often felt like a constant, awkward series of adaptations and negotiations as we navigate the many discomforts and inconveniences posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. No aspect of our daily routines has gone untouched — from work and school to shopping and everything between. That includes the creation and consumption of all manner of artistic media. 

In keeping with necessity being the mother of invention, the Panida Theater is premiering its first-ever “virtual theater production” with the comedy short Coffee Shop, which will stream at and be posted to the theater’s Facebook page from Friday, Jan. 15 to Sunday, Jan. 31.

“Because in the sequestered circumstances our community can’t come to the Panida, we are bringing the Panida to them,” said Panida Executive Director Patricia Walker. 

The play — written and directed by Teresa Pesce — is a light-hearted, clever ensemble piece starring some familiar local stage actors: Scott Johnson, Tim Martin, Andrew Sorg, Alex Cope, Steve Neuder and Walker.

Where it breaks new ground is with its use of Zoom — the actors filmed their parts sitting in their own homes, having a series of conversations that add up to a collection of small skits, all performed in “their own little box,” as Pesce described it. 

“It reminds me of the Brady Bunch, with everybody in their squares on a Zoom call,” added Walker.

As people host virtual happy hours and watch parties, it was perhaps only natural that the next step might be a virtual play set in a virtual coffee shop. Of course, as with any Zoom call, the technology platform itself presents some unique challenges — especially for actors. 

For one thing, only one person can speak at a time, lest things devolve into a gabble of discordant voices. There’s also a built in lag between speakers — intended to avoid the aforementioned cacophony — which is something comedic actors in particular have to plan for when delivering their lines.

“Comedy is all about speed, so the last thing you want is a big dip in energy between lines,” Pesce said. 

There’s also the foreignness of performing for a computer screen, rather than feeding on the energy of a real-life audience. 

“It’s different from the actor’s side of it to get into character; you’re talking to your computer,” said Walker, who plays a marriage counselor whose own marital problems provide much of the comedic motive force in the eponymous coffee shop. “I had to go through the motions of putting on makeup and costume because I had to get into character to do this.”

Finally, and this is something any Zoom user can sympathize with, there’s the minor distraction of looking at yourself as you participate in the call.

“That’s the last thing any actor should ever do,” said Andrew Sorg, who lent his technical expertise to the essential videography and editing components of the production.

Despite those challenges, and maybe in part because of them, Coffee Shop is a truly unique artistic effort that Pesce, Walker and Sorg agreed is not only new territory but exciting. Among the actors in the production is Zachary Sabbah, whom local theater fans will recognize from Pesce’s many other plays, who is calling in his performance from Portland, Ore. 

Though Zoom has its own peculiar strictures, it also opens up a lot of possibilities not only for incorporating actors from outside the area but the use of computer-generated backgrounds — bringing elements of filmmaking and special effects to stage acting, where under traditional circumstances they may not have been possible. It also opens the way for a robust musical component.

Regardless of the newness of the format, Walker said “all the veteran stage actors adapted effortlessly,” and both Pesce and Walker are excited to turn virtual theater productions like Coffee Shop into a series.

Pesce has already penned the script for the second Coffee Shop, which features a Valentine’s Day theme and is slated to screen in February.

“I’d write one of these every dang week, if they wanted me to,” Pesce said.

The experiment in virtual theater will be free to view, sponsored by Evans Brothers Coffee, though donations are greatly needed and appreciated. 

The big hope for Pesce and Walker is simply that audiences get a laugh and remember that the Panida is still here, offering entertainment and connection for the community no matter what else might be happening in the world.

“We’re doing the best that we can to keep the presence going; to give them something fun and bring a little laughter into their lives,” Pesce said. 

“Even though we’ll be popping our own popcorn, we can all watch it together and just pass the laughter around,” she added. “I want to give the community some hope.”

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