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Ten Tips for Zoom Theater

Featuring John Muncy, Alonna Ray Maddox, Josh Henderson, and Charles Paul Mihaliak
Screengrab from 12th Night: Quarantined in Illyria.

It's been nearly a year now since I’ve been inside a theater to see a play. A year. I remember choosing not to take the train into New York last January. “It’s too crowded!” I had thought, “I’ll just catch the shows over spring break when I get back from school.”


Welp.


Now my “theater” is my home office where I watch the Zoom & Live Streamed productions that have boomed over the last 7-12 months. Here, I have been trying to discover the key to doing online theater. I keep notebooks and lists everywhere: what works, what doesn’t, cool stuff and time codes from productions I have enjoyed, and of course stacks of Post-It notes with the wild ideas that come when you are 10 hours deep down a YouTube rabbit hole.


In sorting through these papers during a recent move, I distilled a good pile of these notes down to a list of 10 things that would have helped me to know when I started making zoom theater.

I am still far from the 10-thousand-hour-mark, so if you have genius tips and tricks to share, they would be much appreciated! Email us directly at thetheaterinitiative@gmail.com, or leave a comment here on the blog to help out a fellow dramatist as we create this new art form together.

1. Hire a Zoom Manager

Best thing I ever did was hire a Zoom (Stage) Manger. My only regret is not paying her more. Look for someone who is detail oriented and who has seen a lot of both movie and stage productions. Look for someone who will tell you when you are missing a beat, and someone who will tell you frankly when the beat you made is awesome. Look for someone who instills respect in actors and brings them through difficult tech problems with a calm grace. This person should be there for you throughout the whole process, from show development to final performance.


2. Choose your medium

I’ve billed this as a “Zoom Theater” article, but there are numerous streaming services out there. As Zoom is not paying us to sponsor them, here’s some more services that are well worth investigating -

Your medium is usually determined by budget, but you should also factor in the following component:


Here at TTI, we’ve done all three. Each has had drastically different process. When choosing, don’t forget to factor in your blood pressure (livestreams can be terrifying) and how you want the audience to be impacted by the work. Check out the following productions for more ideas:



4. Invest in good equipment.

An artist is only as good as their tools. Webcams, mics, and recording / streaming studios come in vastly different qualities, and if you have any money left over from hiring a Zoom Manager, you should probably spend it on good equipment.


5. Know the Tech

Looking back, for each production we did, I wish we had done 2x more tech checks. This is not only to make sure things run smoothly the night of the performance, but also for the actors. Trying to deal with tech while acting is exhausting, and extra tech checks allow for ease of mind for the whole team.


6. Intercoms Systems

A huge drawback of Livestreamed theater is the lack of a backstage and sound booth. The production team needs a way to communicate with everyone “in the room” without bringing the action of the scene to a grinding halt. This intercom system can be as simple as a 6-way call with the production team, or you can go with a more sophisticated radio system like UnityCom.


7. Give actors access to recordings

Normally it’s fatal for actors to watch themselves perform, but we found it to be a useful tool when prepping for Zoom Theater. The art form is so new, that while an actor knows what looks good, bad, and ugly on stage, they don’t have the same level of expertise on Zoom. Allow them access to the recordings of rehearsals, and together you can discover what works.


8. For the Performance – throw a Watch Party!

It can be hard on actors and audiences to feel like they are involved in anything beyond their webcam in their living room. Watch parties are great ways to involve the audience, and speaking of ways to involve the audience…


9. Hold Talkbacks

Your fellow dramatists want to know how you are doing and what you are doing! Zoom Theaterists are still in their learning stage – and we are all eager to find a method in this madness. Hold a talkback and share some tips!


10. Know the why.

As dramatists, I am sure we have all had experience dealing with this question. “Why would you become a drama major?” “Why do you like Shakespeare?” “Why bother with Zoom? Can’t you just wait for theaters to open back up?”


I am also sure, that no one who has ever asked you the Why question was actually interested in hearing it answered.


But if you do make Zoom theater, if you are one of those who misses Sondheim and Strindberg, you must answer that question for yourself. Because if you don’t, and you find yourself in the 11th hour with 5 viewers for the livestreamed performance of Winter’s Tale, you may just give up on the idea of theater in general.


Why are you doing this? Is it more for the actors or for the audience? Is it for yourself? Is it to invent something new and beautiful?


Know your why and never lose sight of it, and it will be there to support you even after we can set foot on stage again.




Cover photo from In Defense of the Tuna Jelly by Isabel Brodsky. Pictured are Pedro Barquin, Julia Moore, Nick Moore, John Muncy, Fosse Thornton, Carman Ferran, and Ed Houser. Watch the full production here.

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