There is no guidebook for this. There’s no college course or degree. Nobody goes to theater school to learn how to perform over video chat – yet that’s the skill seven Cheyenne Little Theatre Players actors are about to gain from their latest production.
“The Rhyming Rapscallion or A Tale that Goes from Bad to Verse or Dirk and Tallen Hansome!” is a melodrama written by Brooks Reeves and Rory Mack that was last performed in Cheyenne 12 years ago. A lot has happened in that last decade, but it’s the pandemic that’s swept the world in just the past couple months that has made the biggest difference.
In order to practice social distancing, the actors in this production will do a staged reading of the melodrama from their respective homes that will be recorded via video call. Audiences can watch from their own homes by clicking on the YouTube link posted to the group’s Facebook page at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 1.
“A number of us (were) brainstorming ways to keep in touch with our patrons and volunteers. And plus, in all honesty, when we don’t do shows, we don’t make any money that can help us keep the doors open,” said CLTP Managing Director Todd Martin.
He and the organization’s board of directors decided to go with Mack and Reeves’ play because it demonstrates what CLTP is most known for: entertaining melodramas that are appropriate for the whole family.
The playwriting pair began as castmates in a play called “Cockeyed” by University of Wyoming theatre department professor William Missouri Downs. It was 2007, and Reeves was aware that his new colleague had recently been slated to direct CLTP’s annual melodrama. Traditionally, the director writes the script for that show, and Reeves asked if he could co-write the melodrama with Mack.
Mack and Reeves decided to write a play that would put middle-aged actors like themselves in the spotlight, so the hero and heroine are a couple of parents of an uninterested son who wants to bypass the heroic lifestyle for that of a cowboy poet.
“Brooks wanted to kind of set the melodrama on its ear a little bit and change some of the conventions, and I wanted to hang onto the traditions, so we complemented each other well,” Mack said. “He was trying some new things, and I was trying to keep it grounded.”
Their story is told by a narrator, but in the virtual melodrama version, there will also be someone describing the stage movements and other physical aspects of the show that the actors won’t be able to act out from their separate homes.
To make those directions flow in between lines (and to generally make the production as seamless as possible), the group will rehearse via video call a couple times prior to the recording.
“I think it’s very important to mention that staged readings and readers theater is a particular style of theater. CLTP has done numerous staged readings for various audiences, and, of course, readers theater is a common style that you see in speech tournaments and drama festivals,” Mack said. “This isn’t a strange form of theater, it’s traditional, just being presented in a unique way.”
CLTP has done live radio plays and offered similar theatrical experiences previously (including a staged reading of the play “The Dead Guy,” which was supposed to be staged this month, but has been rescheduled for Aug. 27-30), Martin added, so this is just another type of performance during which actors won’t be moving around. Instead, the emphasis is more on the reading of the script.
But script readings at a table or onstage are much different than one from separate locations, both men agreed.
Although certain elements will be missing – reading that the villain is hiding behind a paper cactus, for example, won’t be as funny as seeing that acted out – Mack believes this story has enough verbal witticism to keep people laughing and engaged.
In fact, though he will miss some of the physical comedy elements, Mack said he’s excited to see if this one goes over better than the production 12 years ago, because one of the biggest pieces of feedback he was given on the last performance is that the audience didn’t catch/hear all the jokes packed into the script. Now that the emphasis is on the words and not the actions of the performers, maybe the jokes will come across clearer.
Asked about any nerves related to acting in such an odd format, Mack appeared ready to rise to the occasion.
“I think meeting the challenge is part of it,” he said. “It’s a unique way to have the opportunity to perform, to kind of perform and play off someone who’s not there. You just kind of see each other, and so (we’ll be) learning some things about timing, because you know there is a little bit of a lag when you’re doing Zoom, so you have to make sure it looks cohesive … It’ll be a chops builder.”
Martin said he’s watched several virtual performances from other theater companies on social media, and though it was a little bizarre at first, he said he got used to the new format fairly quickly. He advises everyone who’s a little unsure to give it a shot, especially because we could all use a distraction right now.
“I think people are starved for entertainment,” he said. “They can’t go to theater, films, concerts, those kinds of things. … We’re just trying to fill this void, not only for our patrons, but also for our volunteers. Our volunteers are missing performing; it’s what they love to do, so this has been really difficult for them.”
There are plenty more virtual theatrical experiences in the works through CLTP, Martin assured, so now’s the time to make sure theatergoers have a reliable internet connection and a comfy chair to watch from.