This is what live theatre looks like—or, rather, sounds like—in the plague year of 2020.
Undaunted by an interminable status quo that has put traditional productions on hold, Theatre Lab’s Matt Stabile has been finding ways to bring theatre artists together from the earliest days of this pandemic. And he’s still doing it, while honoring Theatre Lab’s purpose of shepherding world-premiere works to their very first audiences.
The Lab’s latest initiative is a series of audio plays that launched this past Sunday with Jeff Bower’s “One Last Shot.” This COVID crime caper with a nifty “Pulp Fiction”-esque structure made for an adrenalized 40 minutes. It’s set in an eccentrically designed bar, with characters including a server struggling under a recessed economy, her conspiracy-spewing boss, a couple on a torturous blind date, a heat-packing old widow and a mysterious visitor dressed in PPE.
Zoom play readings are commonplace now, but Theatre Lab approaches things differently. Ticketholders don’t see the actors; they only hear them, along with a creative sound-design palette that immerses us fully in the space of the characters—like in the case of “One Last Shot,” a slot machine’s internal rhythms, a cuckoo clock’s loopy alarm, a duffel bag zippering shot. When characters spoke in the bar’s bathroom, the acoustics were appropriately echo-y, and when a car drove away from the scene, we experienced the crunch of tires on gravel. We could practically smell the stench of a character’s beer belch.
“One Last Shot” would work as a conventional play, but it’s perhaps better this way, because it stimulates the theatre of the mind, in a throwback to the golden age of radio, when families would gather around their boxy consoles to listen to the adventures of The Shadow. It’s also like listening a podcast, except it’s not available on demand. Part of what makes this series unique is that its virtual audiences must tune in live to hear it. And when it’s over, they can ask questions and offer feedback.
“What we felt most frustrated by with ‘Zoom Theatre’—besides the limitations of the platform; actors in tiny boxes—is the lack of interaction between the audience and performers,” Stabile says. “Most Zoom readings involve an audience that is watching, but not actually ‘in the meeting.’ … We missed seeing our audience and, to be frank, one of our favorite parts of any reading is the talkback following. We wanted to provide an experience that is as close to that as possible.”
Thus, when attendees sign in, which can be as early as 3:30 p.m. Sunday, they see a screen with the “program” listing the title, cast and artistic team. At 4 p.m., Stabile gives a virtual curtain speech, then mutes everybody’s mics for the performance of the audio play. “In this way, we are all watching the event together, and we can also watch the audience experience the show. When the reading ends, everyone joins us in the Zoom again for a live talkback,” Stabile says. “Mics are unmuted, audience members can raise their hands, and we can discuss the work and the process.
“Because of this, these have felt more communal than other virtual readings I’ve attended. We also don’t want to lose one of the more important aspects of live theatre—you have to be in the room when it happens—which is why we don’t offer replays. We want our community to gather together (as best we can) and experience a piece simultaneously.”
Judging by last weekend’s first foray into the audio imaginarium, it works. The series continues Oct. 18 with Jahna Ferron-Smith’s “Adrift” and Oct. 25 with Vanessa Garcia’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” Tickets cost $15; click here to purchase and learn more about the plays.