How To Create Impactful Online Theater

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"Dramatic Betweenness"

TheSharedScreen is dedicated to producing high-quality, impactful live online theater AND sharing what we learn with other theatermakers.  We'd love to hear what you think.

For a comprehensive discussion of the phenomenon we call "Dramatic Betweenness" and an extensive how-to guide for creating and producing effective, affordable, accessible, and scaleable art in this new medium, please read our recent article in DC Metro Theater Arts. You can also download the complete article.

Here are some highlights of what we've learned so far.

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“Dramatic Betweenness”: A new theatrical experience 

Here’s an incredibly simple idea: a play written and performed as a video call. Nothing more. Not a streamed live production, a Zoom reading, or a play produced on a virtual stage. The play is just the call. 

Imagine what it would be like to tap into a video call between strangers engaged in an intense private conversation. You are between them, making eye contact with each of them, all the time. 

Betweenness draws us inside the struggle of the play, inside the moment, inside the moral dilemma or ethical debate the writer has constructed. And being inside the debate can get inside of us in ways never before possible. 

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Writing and Adapting: “It’s just a Zoom call”

Dramatic betweenness demands that a call be nothing other than a call. Characters log on. They have a video call. They log off. Anything else breaks the spell. It triggers disbelief. 

Here’s our rubric for what works great. Take a few real people with storied relationships and strong opinions. Put them in a simple, everyday setting. Then confront them with complex and charged ideas. 

  • Make the driving force behind your plot emotional and ethical interpersonal conflict.  This is a medium of conflicting intentions in intimate relationships.

  • Justify the call. The first character on-screen needs a reason to be there.

  • During the call, minimize time and location changes. 

  • Avoid talking heads. 

  • Stay in the technological present. Zoom didn’t exist until 2004.

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Acting: You and your tiny camera

 

The lens is both your scene partner and your audience. This was the first and most important discovery we made as a class and we practiced it rigorously. Act directly into the camera and you make eye contact with your partner and your audience simultaneously. 

  • Be more than off-book. You must know every single word in the script. Every audience member is making eye contact with you from a few feet away; if you cheat for a line, they will see it.

  • Communicating through the lens is your character’s primary action at all times. 

  • You’re in a continuous closeup, you are also in a continuous reaction shot.

 

  • Motivate logging on and off and camera movements.

  • Get to know the boundaries of your frame like the back of your hand. It will free you to move.

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Directing: Working the cameras for “cinematic synergy”

Directors in this medium have a new compositional challenge: the cinematic synergy. How do standard cinematic conventions synergize when they appear live side by side on the same screen? 

  • Set the screen with believable but revealing sets.

  • Help your actors produce great raw material for you to synthesize. Encourage your actors to explore and be their eyes in real-time. 

  • Control sequence of entry to put the right character in the driver’s seat. Whoever logs in first will be anchored to the left side of the screen.

 

  • Use distance to visually track emotions.

  • Use camera angles to suggest status. 

  • Use cinematic transitions to punctuate beats. 

  • The ace up your sleeve: the Zoom pause. Pauses work. Use them sparingly to great effect.

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Lights, Camera, Sound, Internet!: Keeping it Zoom

Keep all your tech true to a Zoom call. The audience will be jarred by anything that doesn’t play by the rules of a normal call.  This medium is financially and technologically accessible. We are a group of scrappy actors with a dream, spread in isolation across the country, and we made Tape happen using stuff we already had around our homes and apartments. A Zoom Webinar license is far cheaper than renting a theater — not to mention it scales instantly from 10 to 10,000 people, and you don’t have to have parking. 

  • Get the highest-speed Internet you can get, from reliable providers, especially if you are hosting the webinar. Test your internet speed repeatedly.

 

  • The golden rule of Zoom lighting: put the brightest light behind your camera.  If you want our simple, cheap, and effective DIY guide for a home three-point lighting setup you can buy at your local hardware store, watch this five-minute video.

  • Use a good webcam. Newer laptops have built-in cameras that can suffice. If not, you can invest in an HD USB webcam. 

  • Use a good mic. Most webcams come with built-in microphones that sound great. If you must, get a good USB mic that you can hide just outside of the frame.

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Creating the Audience Experience:

A night-in that sparks a conversation

Live theater, and even going to the movies, involves a sort of ritual.  This new medium, shared in isolation, needs a new sort of ritual. If you have Zoom and PowerPoint and know how to press the buttons in the right sequence (granted it is a lot of clicking), you too can create a seamless and engaging audience experience.

  • If you can, do it live. If your audience knows they are in the story while it’s happening, it's riveting. There’s no rewind. 

  • Create a “virtual lobby.” We use PowerPoint presentation we screen share along with pre-show music for thirty minutes. It includes bios, acknowledgments, history of the show, donation information, content warning, and closed caption and talkback directions. 

  • Transition into the show with a simple cinematic introduction.  We just share another PowerPoint. We sync fifteen seconds of images and sound to set the tone and give the audience a sense of the characters’ locales. 

  • Have a Talkback immediately after the show. Talkbacks can spark profound conversations about the subject matter of the play. When the audience has been in the conversation for 90 minutes, they want, and deserve, a chance to participate. Let the audience join the forum.