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  • Writer's pictureMoriah Joy

Mark Twain and the Future of Theatre – Virginia Stage Company

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Words by Moriah Joy. Image courtesy of Virginia Stage Company.

While social distancing may feel isolating, technology is being utilized like never before in order to keep our sense of community and human connection strong. This is especially true in the arts community as artists are finding new ways to come together and continue to tell stories. Platforms like Facebook Live, Google Chats, Zoom, and many more are creating spaces for artists to connect with their audiences and foster creative spaces. Ryan Clemens, the Lead Resident Theatre Artist at Virginia Stage Company, shared his thoughts on overcoming these challenges both in workshops and performing.

This past Wednesday, Ryan hosted a monologue workshop to help local actors with auditions and expressed the unique experience of webcam classrooms.

“It‘s interesting because… as artists it’s all about the life and the connection between the performer or teacher and the audience or students and the liveness that you experience with the online situation is tentative and delayed. It’s an artifice of sorts. It takes a little while to figure out the technical components as people come into the chatroom and… establish how things work. It takes a special kind of patience when there’s a lag or… someone’s microphone turns them into a robot voice. … Also the idea of communicating to one another without really truly being able to look at one another. In hosting a monologue workshop, I asked the students to look at their camera and imagine it as the face of the person their character is speaking to. So it works… and I’m pleased to say that that’s been a great lesson and a great discovery that we’ve been making. It’s just, it requires a little more patience and a little more time to figure out the idea of connection in that space.”

With each online platform, there are different levels of connection that can be facilitated. While Google Chat and Zoom allow you to see your audience, there’s a limitation on how many people you can directly see at one time. With Facebook Live, the only feedback from a performer’s audience are quick scrolling comments and emojis that flash across the screen. This creates a completely different atmosphere compared to hearing the hushed (or not so hushed) whispers, laughs, tearful sniffles, or other reactions experienced during a live performance. Ryan is also going to be performing a version of his one man show about famous family member Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, as a way to maintain community engagement despite his reliance upon webcams and technology. He expressed his curiosity to see this dynamic play out with his performance.

“Because when I perform as Mark Twain though it’s all a one man show, it’s a show where it’s one person communicating with a whole audience and I need that interaction, I need to hear their response, I need to feel their energy. It’ll be a unique experience to see how Mark Twain… is learning to communicate through the medium of the webcam.”

Ryan has had to change the dynamic for his show to fit the new medium. His typical one man show performance consists of him starting out as himself and changing into different characters in front of the audience, including versions of Mark Twain throughout the course of his life. Whereas for this version, he’s changed the story so that Mark Twain has been staying with Ryan Clemens and his wife and telling different stories.

Ryan explained that since he will not be performing on a stage, he has established his own setup to create a relaxed atmosphere for his performance. Since he has been performing the show for over a decade, he has collected enough memorabilia to act as the background.

“….books and photographs and souvenirs from different shows and gifts that people have given me…I’ve got all kinds of jumping frogs and Mark Twain dolls and I’ve got my rocking chair in that corner [where I’ll be performing.]”

Patrick Mullins, the head of the Public Works program, is also working with Ryan to make sure that the performance is accessible to many members of the community.

“[Patrick]’s been working feverishly to figure out things like how to broadcast with captions for members of our audience who might be deaf or hearing impaired…It’s a whole different kind of technical job too.”

With having to get creative and find new avenues for artistic outlets, Ryan is still hopeful that while this may impact theatre temporarily, in offering time for people to create, the overall dynamic and the way that we view theatre will not change.

“I think the reason that theatre continues and the reason that we are still drawn to visit actors who are doing their work on the stage is because [of] that essential liveness and connection that film cannot provide and other mediums like the internet cannot provide. To be in the same space as a performer and hear those words and breathe that same air and make that real tangible connection is at the [core] of theatre. Since there’s nothing that can replace that I think we’ll always find that people are drawn together and tell stories in the same space. Hopefully there will come a time soon… where we will be able to get together again in our theatre spaces… There’s perhaps inspiration to be found at this time but I think more than that it’s an opportunity to practice patience and to reflect upon what’s important to us as people and as individuals.”

Ryan has been working with Virginia Stage Company for over ten years and has a BA in Theatre from Western Washington University and a MFA in Acting from Regent University. Tune in Sunday, March 29th at 2pm to watch Meet Mark Twain: Live on Facebook Live, no registration is required. Ryan will also be hosting a monologue workshop for anyone 18 and older, registration is required.

For more information about future workshops and performances with Virginia Stage Company please visit their web page as they are updating their information daily.

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