Hard on the heels of a physically distanced Thanksgiving and only a couple of weeks ahead of a winter holiday season during which many people prudently avoided coming together with friends and family, The University of Tulsa Department of Theatre’s fall production delivered an “evening of love and connection” between individuals who were often confused, sometimes broken and always yearning to share their thoughts and hearts with another person.
Set in a mythical, rural New England town blanketed in snow and illuminated by twinkling stars and the aurora borealis, John Cariani’s play Almost, Maine proved an ideal vehicle for temporarily forgetting about COVID-19 and the separations it imposes. “For our fall production,” noted Department of Theatre Chair Susan Barrett, “we wanted to find something uplifting, a play that would take audiences away from these troubled times.”
Since debuting in 2004, Almost, Maine has gone on to become one of the most widely produced dramas in the United States. The play comprises a prologue, interlogue and an epilogue among which nestle eight vignettes. Each of these parts is performed by a pair of actors who, in all cases but one, represent male and female characters tentatively exploring sexual and other forms of desire. In one of the vignettes, entitled “They Fell,” two rugged Mainer men surprise each other – and themselves – by their same-gender affection.
The TU Department of Theatre’s production ran from Dec. 10 through Dec. 13. It was directed by Steven Marzolf, with art direction by Barrett. “What the characters go through is very real, funny and poignant, but the world around them is magical,” remarked Marzolf. “It’s also a play about joy, hope and the power of love. Given the year we have had, those themes are a welcome distraction from what we have all experienced collectively.”
Setting the (Zoom) stage
Fourteen TU students performed the play’s 19 characters. Several others provided crew support with costumes, sets and filming.
The latter activity – filming – points to one of the unique aspects of this fall’s production. Because of COVID-19, Almost, Maine could be neither rehearsed in group settings nor presented live on stage. Directing the play from his home in Fayetteville, AR, Marzolf and his actors relied on Zoom to conduct the initial “table work” of reading and analyzing the scenes as well as initial rehearsals with each of the actors in their homes. Once actual staging began, the actors came to Kendall Hall at TU, where they safely rehearsed – and ultimately were filmed – in front of individual green screens while wearing earbuds so they could hear their scene partners.
Unlike other Zoom productions, the final version of Almost Maine was filmed with a camera in each room for each actor. The actors’ parts were then edited together, aligning sound and adding appropriate backgrounds, music and animation. The final step entailed editing the 11 vignettes together with narration so that the whole play could be seamlessly streamed online.
While Marzolf notes that it is impossible to replicate theatre’s live aspect via Zoom, the experience taught him to embrace what he calls “the size of truth.” Marzolf explained: “As actors, we all want to be truthful, the specific spaces we find ourselves in affect the size of truth. The actors in Almost, Maine were three to four feet from the recording equipment, so they couldn’t treat it like it was a 500-seat theatre where your energy needs to get to the back row. In this production, the actors needed their energy to reach the camera lens.”
Marzolf’s observation was underscored by Nicholas Mueller, a junior majoring in musical theatre: “Performing in a new medium likely pushed us to go further and dig deeper into the characters since we had to connect over a screen.”
Sounding the depths
Theatre major Fynn Wennemyr shed light on how the actors harnessed and transmitted the energy necessary to reach beyond the cameras’ lenses. “Our director insisted that the depth of characters’ inner life act as a driving force in each of the scenes. For myself, that moment came quite late in the process.
“The depth of the characters can be written out and discussed in rehearsals extensively, but it is not until an actor fully trusts in the work that they and their scene partner have done that the character is revealed. It’s no longer about the actor forcing the appearance of a character, but allowing the actor to relax and let the character come forth and take control.”
For Olivia Mack, a junior double-majoring in engineering physics and musical theatre, stepping into character in Almost, Maine “required absolute vulnerability.” This play, she noted, “requires actors to summon their true selves to give the audience the chance to feel something that they feel. That requires absolute vulnerability, and I enjoyed watching my castmates learn how far they were able to go.”
Mack was able to witness this journey particularly closely in the scene – “Where It Went” – she shared with Mueller. Reflecting on that experience, Mueller commented that “my face felt electric, my heart was pounding and it felt as if my ears had been shut to everything except the audio coming over the computer. It was one of the first times that I had begun to feel things so personally while in character. It felt like a culmination of the classwork that all of us have taken in the theatre program here on campus and the rehearsals we hosted on our own.”
Theatre for life
In William Shakespeare’s late-Elizabethan comedy As You Like It, the character Jaques observes, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” For theatre students at TU, that famous metaphor also extends in the other direction: from stage to world. Beyond the exhilaration associated with performing in Almost, Maine, for several students, their participation in the fall 2020 production as well as their long-term theatre studies are engendering in them skills and outlooks they will carry with them beyond their undergraduate years.
“Professionally, I’ve learned so many facets of theatre I feel confident that moving forward in life there will always be a way for me to stay involved in this art form,” said Mueller. “Most recently, for example, I took a lighting design course, and I now have the confidence that if I was sat in front of a light board and told that I needed to design for a song or a whole show I could do so and do it enthusiastically. Less than a year ago I would’ve run from the board.”
Studying theatre and performing in plays has also, Mueller observed, affected him profoundly inwardly: “Theatre has taught me to feel; it has taught me to care. Learning to step into the shoes of characters forces you to take a step back and evaluate who you are, what makes you fundamentally you and what shapes you. I have not only learned a deeper understanding of what makes others who they are but what makes me who I am. Since I stepped foot in the department I have become more daring, more creative, more empathetic. I’ve become a better person.”
Striking a similar note, Mueller’s scene-partner, Mack, sees the impact of her theatre studies and experiences rippling out to whatever might be next on her career journey: “Theatre is a selfless art form,” she said, “and Almost, Maine allowed me to be a vessel. Saying ‘yes’ and dropping one’s ego are necessary in order to let creativity flow in any profession.”