A Couple of Zooms and We'll Be Out of This Mess
The Chord talked with Andy Crocker of Mister and Mischief and Mike Sablone, producing artistic director of the Warehouse Theatre*, about their collaboration to produce the theater’s first offering since COVID interrupted the season in March. The interactive online experience, Objectivity, will run for two more weekends this month. (Tickets here).
Just before the show opened, Crocker and Sablone, longtime friends, shared the thrills and terrors of putting the show together virtually in just one month. Andy’s partner in life and interactive productions, Jeff Crocker, wasn’t present but is mentioned. Here’s part of our conversation, via Zoom, about a show now playing—via Zoom.
Jennifer: How are you two feeling about the show?
Mike: I am super enthusiastic. For a piece that's been created from whole cloth in basically a month, it's in incredible shape. And it speaks to Andy and Jeff’s knowledge of what works and what could possibly work.
There's a whole bunch of things that we're all figuring out on the fly, but watching, we've been doing playtests of some of the interactive sections for the last couple of weeks. We've learned from the audiences, and we're now able to run the whole piece and see the emotional arc. How the physics of the piece work is really exciting, and I’m thrilled to start to get a wide range of audience members in for this.
Andy: That is one of the most exciting parts about it, and the hardest parts to test too. Because, if you are running a show in a specific community, you can test it with that community in mind. We're trying both by design and by happenstance is super accessible. So it's an exciting challenge to make sure we're testing and tweaking with all sorts of folks in mind.
Jennifer: Together, you’ve both got experience in theater, film, television, and comedy. So, what are you finding works or doesn't, or how are you having to arrange or rearrange things?
Andy: What I think makes this question hard to answer is when something works, you want to make sure that it didn't work magically because of something you don't even know. So, you have to keep testing with all kinds of people, in all kinds of ages, with all kinds of ability levels in all kinds of communities. Of course, not everything's going to work for everyone all the time. Otherwise, you'd just be like making a very a bland piece of bread.
Mike: Not even bread, something that's less exciting.
Andy: A gluten-free wet cracker.
The things that work that aren’t super surprising. People are craving human connection, and the more we can feel like people are connecting with each other, the more the piece works. A challenge is reaching across the Zoom, which a lot of people have negative feelings about at this point.
Everyone thought, “We'll just do a couple of Zooms, and then we'll be out of this mess (pandemic),” Now it's like, “Oh, this is life.” So how do we reach across this technology to make real connections, and to really play with each other and be present with each other?
Mike: When we set out to do this originally, basically, the only ground rule I wanted for Jeff and Andy was that it was real; we weren't ignoring that it took place in Zoom. We weren't pretending it was something else. We weren't using green screens to be like, now we're on Mars.
And so we really wanted to ground it and make the interaction parts basically just a conversation between our main character, Mary Del Campo, and the audience having the audience play themselves, just answering questions about an object they brought.
They don’t have to perform. You don't have to be funny, or you don't have to be insightful. Or you don't have to be like bracingly honest; you can just be yourself. And if any of those things come through when you're being yourself, fantastic.
Andy: One thing we had to figure out—addition to realizing Zoom is not a costume, it's not a set—is that the audience is not playing a character. As much as I like LARPing (live-action role-playing) and immersive theater, where you play a character, and think they are super valuable, it’s just not the kind of work that we do.
So, I talked to a lot of my teacher friends that are now teaching theater online (due to COVID-19) and a lot of my people who are directing for young audiences online. They don't have time or energy to teach new complicated mechanisms. They’re like, here's a way we can be present and playful and honest. For Objectivity, we like translated a lot of those techniques to and for an adult audience.
These teachers that have had to make these huge changes to the way that they work and have to engage in a playful way I’ve found super valuable, and they're so resourceful and brilliant. So, that was a great resource in developing the piece because they have already figured out some stuff that works and some stuff that doesn't.
Jennifer: That's so smart to look to educators, because they're nimble, and they have all the audience challenges plus high stakes testing and such.
Mike: I went down a rabbit hole on Tik-Tok of like people recording teachers in classrooms that are also leading Zooms. It's like a full orchestra conductor, how they're like managing both, with, like, 30 incredibly crazy musicians being the children.
Watching them, it's like what a stage manager would be doing during a musical, calling 14 cues at once. There's something amazing about what they're doing. So, if we can sort of steal the work they've already done…
Andy: Our show is relatively simple because we are working with adults that are not probably going to start screaming that they want a baloney sandwich in the middle of the show. But if they do, we support them.
Jennifer: It’s interesting to think about writing for Zoom. Did you have to look to different cues, or was that maybe easier to translate?
Andy: This is one of many interactive pieces we've written. Jeff and I have our own weird way of writing a script. Or maybe everyone does this:
We write out the things we want said in a specific way. And then we imagine what we think an interaction might look like between an audience member and an actor. For Objectivity, we were on a road trip, and we just kind of like pretended to be audience members, and I wrote down what we were saying. Just so we could see like what the arc of the show would look like. And then as we playtest and rehearse, we adjust that.
Once we cast the show, we had to make sure especially on Zoom, and especially with an interactive piece, that the voice feels natural to the performer. So I always tell, like I tell Jessica Eckenrod, who play MARY Del Campo, it has to feel right when you say it: this is not Hamlet, please make the words your own.
So, we end up with these sorts of chunks of scripted and interactivity and move those chunks around until we have the shape of the show.
Mike: Andy, I love how every time there's a line or something that sticks out to me as amazing, I’ll message you, and nine times out of ten, you’ll say that line is true.
What Andy and Jeff have done is like taken enough of performer’s real lives, and put it in there. It does feel like it's natural, and it does feel like it's an object that Jessica has lived with. There's enough of her own personality in there. You want it to be as natural as possible, so it's less invasive, both from an audience perspective and also from an overall narrative perspective.
Andy: This is going to sound creepy, but one of our first big shows, Escape from Gadot, involved a play that audience members had to interact with and interrupt. Jeff often talked about the actors becoming like human software, where we have to train them so hard to be like if something particular happens, these are your options for what to do, and this and that. We realized pretty quickly the performers are such a value, like highest technology you could possibly ever get your hands on. They are these complicated, magical, incredible assets.
Obviously everyone loves actors and the actors are always taken care of, but when you're doing an interactive piece, there's a bunch of character extra caretaking that you want to do, so they don’t perish. Then when you're on zoom, you have this extra orchestration, like Mike was talking about. So part of making sure that the words and the interactions feel natural, part of it is for the benefit of the show. Part of it is for the benefit of caretaking our team. So it feels really integrated to all of us.
Does that sound creepy that I just referred to our actors as high technology? I just think in a world where theme parks are like, “How can I program a robot to say 700 phrases to guests as they walk in?” I’m like, “You know what has more than 700 phrases? Human beings.”
Mike: Yes, it's weird that you think of them as robots, but you did at least say you didn't want them to perish, so yay.
Jennifer: What kind of different things are you thinking about when you're casting, especially with that added element of having to react to potentially anything.
Andy: Objectivity has taught me a lesson I’ve been learning for a long time, but I feel like it really hit home with this show: immersive and interactive theater is a very specific skill set. But, it turns out that you don't need the actor that's done it a million times before; you just need the right kind of person.
The right kind of the person is empathetic, does what we call “listening like a thief.” You're listening so hard to what the other people are saying so that you can take what they say and then honor it and give them heroic moments.
We were casting this out of Greenville, and I was like I don't know the pool of actors there at all. It made me a little nervous, and then I was blown away by everyone that auditioned. But of course, when I met Jessica, I was like, oh, she's just, she's a wonderful actor in general. But also the right kind of listener and the right kind of person to collaborate on a project like this. And there was very little to teach her.
Can you make someone feel seen? Can you honor the story and the people that are coming to help tell this story with you? And I say that, again, like it's something that I’ve been learning throughout my career. But it's never been clearer than going into a whole new city virtually.
Mike: You've been here in person.
Andy: But I didn't meet Jessica then because I didn't know we would be doing the show. And there’s one other thing I keep wanting to shout it from the virtual rooftops. Every time there is a show where I feel like it could be cast in a more diverse way or more outside of the theater company's normal community in any sense There's just so much out there, and the world is so rich. And think of all of the tools in your toolbox that you don't even know are there; it just is very exciting. I feel like an evangelist a little bit.
Mike: It was exciting. It’s partially terrifying, too, in that way. It's hard enough casting for world premieres of plays, because that have never been done before, and the piece isn't completely finished. You have an outline or a script that say who the character is, but you don't really know what they're going to be like until you get non-robot human beings into those roles.
Andy: The performer also helps build the piece. It's not really devised work, it's just highly collaborative.
In the original concepts of the show, we were really only picturing Marie Condo, but we knew we didn't want an impression of Marie Condo. Also, in the original version of it, she was much meaner. Like she was very, like, grab everything in your house, put it in a box, set it ablaze. And that would never work with Jessica; that's not who she is.
Jennifer: Mike, what were you thinking casting needs before you saw what folks did?
Mike: The need for me was trying to get people that I knew that could balance humor with pathos. And who could be like that potentially could go a little weird if Jeff and Andy want to go a little weird, but also, would keep it grounded.
Jennifer: Creating has to feel pretty good right now; a lot of people just aren't even able to do that. How does this fill the gap for you? How does it totally not fill the gap?
Andy: Filling the gap is a perfect way to describe it because so there's no child care, and everything's very intense. And between trying to find like space for myself and for my family, and the next job, this does fill in the very last gap of time and space.
But that is what's so incredible about being married to your creative partner is that like we have kitchen table discussions as we put the dishes away. We don't have to set up a zoom meeting to problem solve the show; we could just put the kid in the back of the car, hope she naps, have a work session as we drive around the city.
Emotionally, how it fills the gap is that if I didn't have a deadline like I don't think I could do it. If I didn't have this opportunity from Mike and warehouse-like, I would have kicked that can, thinking like well, things will be different, and just around the corner, let's work on this show for whenever things are different. This is a call to action to do what makes sense now, and feels good now.
Mike: It's sort of like marathon running, in that way that when I ran my marathons, I made my wife take a video of me at the end just weeping and saying, Mike, never do this again.
A month later, I was like, I bet I could run an ultra-marathon. There's a giant disconnect between those two versions of myself.
And so in some instances, we've had such like an abrupt and harsh shutdown it's been so hard to like get the energy up to do anything creative. So, doing this has been super exhilarating, but at the same time exhausting. There are just so many other things going on, both in the world and just within everyone's personal lives. Juggling all of these incredibly difficult things, and then at the same point, being like let's throw some art in there is hard.
But it's been like a relief to be working with people like Jeff and Andy, who are like wonderful people, who are also artistic people. Who are, again, juggling a crap ton of things at the moment and still producing incredible work. It's like the best part of this job is paying artists to do what they do well.
Jennifer: With the current state of the world, did you feel like objectivity has to do anything in particular? I know you always want to touch and reach people and all that, but I’m curious about whether it feels bigger now.
Mike: I feel strongly about this. When we first set out, I was just excited to be producing something. I was really moved yesterday when we ran the whole thing for the first time, watching the emotional connections of the story unfold. Like it became something deeper, both cathartic and entertaining in a way that I didn’t expect when I first heard the log line.
While it still remains like just funny and great and lovely and a joy to watch, that there's an emotional depth that really tapped into something for me as an audience member yesterday. I was so relieved about because I realized I wanted something bigger, and I needed something bigger.
There are feelings I didn't expect to feel from this piece that is exactly what I want in entertainment. I love good entertainment that makes you laugh, and then will really sneakily like punch in the stomach right before you leave, and then you'll laugh again. I love what Jeff and Andy have done in raising those stakes for the piece.
Jennifer: What about you, Andy?
Andy: If you ignore what's happening, your piece seems tone-deaf. But I wasn't super interested in doing a topical piece, and that's the line that really we talked a lot about. Is this piece about now? Does it take place now? How much do we acknowledge of the now?
And I think we just wanted two things. We wanted it to feel emotionally resonant to now, and feel like it made sense now. And I think when you have a piece that is playful or funny or, hopefully, both, that we just want that to open the door and create the space for whatever people need in that moment.
So, if you need to just laugh, that is valid, and hopefully, there are opportunities for that. If you are feeling like you need connection to human beings, we have a virtual room full of them, and tools to interact.
If you feel like you need to have your heartstrings tugged on because they haven't been in a while, there is space for that. Because it's an interactive and immersive piece, you really get to choose the level at which you interact once you walk through that door.
We believe that play and laughter are the easiest way to open that door for people. And we believe that right now, we wanted something that was a little bit gentle and a little bit sweet.
*Jennifer Oladipo serves on the board of the Warehouse Theatre and is a shameless fan.