Op-Ed: Generic’s A Chorus (on)Line Offering
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
A look at what local theaters can learn from our first local, online, full-length, fully produced “pandemic performance.
Words by BA Ciccolella. Images courtesy of Generic Theater.
The Generic Theater, known in Hampton Roads for dabbling in more experimental than traditional work, has put together the largest local pandemic experiment by not cancelling their production of A Chorus Line (originally slated to open at the end of June), but moving the entire production online. After a few day’s delay due to technical/ rendering issues, their film became available last night, and anyone who wants to see the show can purchase a 24 hour pass to view the show on Vimeo on Demand.
The production, rather than being performed live each night this week, has been filmed in advance and edited together, with film production credited to Loud Cat Creative. Though everyone involved in the production obviously put their heart and soul into their art, the stream itself does have some technical difficulties that can make watching a challenge. For a first area offering of a fully realized production during the current pandemic, however, it is, in my opinion, difficult to ask for anything more out of Generic’s production, which was originally conceived, designed, and cast to be performed live, with a live audience in the space. Any criticism contained here is meant solely for the consideration of all area theaters to consider and learn from as they move to digital offerings for the fall, and is not intended to be a slight on the cast or crew.
And let’s talk about the cast- the 24 member ensemble had a lot to overcome in their process. The entirety of their early rehearsals were done digitally- so all of their songs, dances, character work, etc. were learned entirely digitally, as Spotlight covered in our May 1 offering, so I won’t do much more than reiterate here how challenging that change in process is to artists who are used to feeding off the energy of people in the same room. I am immensely proud of the cast and crew for being able to remain safe, rehearse only virtually (as frustrating as that must have been), then take those digital meetings, and put them together for a fully choreographed show. Every single cast member looks like they are having fun, which makes the show quite enjoyable to watch, and also makes me wish I could be live in the audience with them for the experience.
The choreography team, Amy Harbin, Coral Mapp, and Lucas Hallauer, did a great job of both working within the talent pool of those cast, and pushing everyone so that any member of the cast looked like they could have made it on the final line. Standouts on the dance end were Lucas Hallauer, who played Larry, (the choreographer for the “show within a show” being cast during the action of the plot), who’s dancing is simply entrancing to watch whenever he is on screen, and yet still somehow magically manages to blend in with the line at the end, and Jillian Schwab Lorello, who plays Cassie. Cassie is an amazing dancer who didn’t make it trying to “be a star”, and now she wants back on the line- we get to see her stand out and eventually work to blend in, all while dealing with the plot drama of a potentially unhealthy past relationship with the director, and Lorello handles the whole thing with ease. Two other standout featured dancers include Arianna Jeanette Hall, who plays Val (Dance 10, Looks 3) and Derrion La’Zachan Hawkins, both of whom steal the stage with their solos, and bring an energy with them that you would normally think was drawn from the audience around them.
When it comes to acting, the ensemble holds their own with each other, but I would be remiss not to mention TréVeon Porchia, playing Paul, for his monologue, which happens towards the end of the show. He is alone with the director (who we have not seen up to this point) and the audience is let in to some very intimate moments of his life which Porchia handled with a grace and sensitivity that I haven’t seen onstage in a while. Those familiar with what happens next in the show will understand why this monologue is particularly heart wrenching. I won’t be the one to spoil it for the rest of you.
Technically, had the show happened with a live audience, I have no doubt it would have been beautiful. The added challenges of filming, however, bring certain theatrical technical elements up short while watching the stream. Lighting, for example, by Alex Mason, looked darker on film than I’m certain it would have looked live in the space, simply because the translation of theatrical lighting to digital film production is difficult (and can be quite expensive). Katelyn Jackson’s costumes were amazingly 70’s, though many of the smaller details on the costuming that would read well in person were lost on film.
I have to assume that any camera focus issues I was seeing (some shots were focused sharper than others within the same scene), were the fault of my streaming speed/ ability at home (my neighborhood is part of the “Cox Communications only” zone). It did seem to me, in some scenes, that they had a “cut happy” editor, and I found myself wishing at times that they would just stay in their closer shot and let the actor’s work speak for itself, especially during monologues. I would also be remiss to not put a trigger warning for jump cuts in for anyone who studied film, though I would at the same time like to remind everyone that the Generic Theater is just that, a theater, not a film production studio, so things like that can, and in my opinion, should be forgiven.
Sound is the biggest issue that I have with the stream, and probably the biggest challenge that the Generic had to overcome. Since the American Choral Directors Association’s guidance came out regarding the dangers of singing indoors, (you can get the basics here if you don’t want to slog through the 2-½ hour webinar that they offered on the topic back on May 5), trying to mix together that many voices, and different recorded takes (for most of the show it appears that the cast is lip-syncing with themselves), seemed to be their biggest challenge. The sound on the stream varies widely in volume and quality, so I suggest you keep your remote handy to make adjustments as needed. Unfortunately, for persons like myself who have auditory processing challenges when it comes to watching TV/ videos, or occasionally need hearing assistance equipment when attending a live show, there is no captioning available for the stream, and since the entirety of the show is filmed in wide shots, there isn’t much ability to lip read. (Editor’s note: For those who aren’t used to film lingo, a wide shot shows whole bodies or nearly a whole bodies with lots of background visible, medium shots show upper bodies with not a lot of background shown, think newscasters, and closeups are shots of an actor’s face where you can see a lot of expression. There. Finally used the video production portion of my degree. My college professors will be happy.) Captioning can be an extra expense depending on whether the platform you are using to host has the ability to do it within their upload, but it is one of the things that theaters in the Hampton Roads area should include in their discussions of future digital offerings.
I would also be remiss in the middle of this pandemic if I didn’t mention that, although many of the shots do not use the whole cast, and social distancing is very apparent in those scenes, scenes that involve the entire cast do not appear to be blocked with the 6 foot to 10 foot of space recommended for non-singing performers/ those doing any form of exercise indoors (though it is possible the perceived closeness could be a trick of filming), and that the majority of the show is filmed inside Little Hall. These continued updates from both the CDC and the state of Virginia will be key for all Hampton Roads performing artists, technicians, and arts organizations to keep on top of as guidance changes keep coming through regularly while scientists do the hard work of learning more and more about the pandemic daily. Theaters wishing to offer digital performances or other digital content should make certain that in their digital offerings, social distancing is very apparent. As artists, we all should be conscious about setting a good example for our community, so that those of us who make our living in the performing arts can get back to work and our careers sooner rather than later- local professionals are already looking at being out of work until at least early 2021.
For this writer, though it is nice to see actors on a stage again, I think I have discovered that filmed theater just doesn’t quite “do it” for me. I majored in communications with a concentration in video production, but then I made my career for these last few decades in live performing arts for a reason. There really isn’t a great way to capture the experience of seeing a show live without having the performers and the audience in the same room. (And yes, I saw Hamilton both on stage and on Disney+. They were two completely different experiences. My opinion here stands regardless of how much money you have to throw at your production values.)
All in all, the Generic took a risk by moving their show online, and from an artistic standpoint, though the project may be a little rough, the love for the craft and effort put forth by their staff and volunteers are evident in the final project. Had the Generic Theater been able to safely host an audience in their space to see A Chorus Line in a more traditional manner, the show would have been a successful and enjoyable night of theater for everyone, that much is evident to me through any technical difficulties present in their video. If you are really looking to scratch a theater-going itch, this stream may do it for you. I suggest you give it a shot yourself, and figure out if streamed theater works for you!
You can find A Chorus Line by The Generic Theater here. Purchases of the stream have been extended through the 14th due to technical difficulties surrounding the release!