Dallas — Before he became artistic director of Theatre Three in 2015, Jeffrey Schmidt had long been one of North Texas’ most inventive theatrical creatives. Take his set for T3’s 2009 production of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, with a boathouse, bridge and tree all made from recycled materials, with the paper used as tree leaves repurposed from banners and posters in the group’s previous production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Or his puppetry and scenic designs — in collaboration with his wife, Lydia Mackay — for their outfit The Drama Club.
So, it’s no surprise that he would innovate while his theater — like most performing arts venues across the world — is not open to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Texas governor has allowed performing arts organizations to open to 50 percent capacity with pandemic protocols in place, as Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre is doing this weekend, Actor’s Equity Association still hasn’t greenlit productions for its theaters (T3 is an AEA Small Professional Theatre). Remember that opening a performing arts production isn’t like reopening a movie theater, in which any film can play on opening day; the arts require weeks of rehearsal and preparation, all under social distancing guidelines right now.
Having canceled one play this season, The Elephant Man, Schmidt didn’t want to do that with the final 2019-20 show, Mark Harelik’s The Immigrant, which was once one of the most-produced plays in the country in 1991. Like other theaters, he decided to make this one available for online viewing, but with a different approach: He would direct and film the actors separately, after weeks of Zoom rehearsals, using green screens so that he could design background sets. There would be minimal activity in the theater — sound, lighting, costume, properties and other creative collaborators were also involved — always with masks and social distancing measures.
The result is a moving production that can be viewed via T3’s Vimeo channel, but only at specific showtimes in alignment with the group’s usual performance times. Tickets can be purchased here.
The play begins in 1909 and follows 30 years in the life of Haskell, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in Hamilton, Texas, and the local couple who take in the man and his wife. (There is also a musical version of the play, which Stage West did in the 2000s.) The T3 cast features Ben Stegmair as Haskell and Jenna Caire as his wife, Leah, with Krista Scott and Adrian Churchill as the Perrys. Costume design is by Shahrzad Mazaheri; lighting and projection design by Philip Vilar; sound design by Harley Roche; props by Claudia V. Jenkins; dialect coaching by Krista Scott; dramaturgy by Dante Flores; and cultural consulting by Randy Pearlman. The video was edited by Jon Todd Collins.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and the scenic backgrounds are well-done. It might not be as engaging as it would have been in a traditional production — there’s no contact between the actors, even for mild interactions; and scene transitions and one actor in each shot means that immediate reactions from other characters are missing. It also adds a sense of loneliness, which especially works for Haskell, and sometimes Ima, in earlier scenes. But it’s still an incredibly innovative approach to making theater as live as it can be right now. Get tickets and put it on your schedule.
We chatted with Schmidt about this play and the challenges of producing it in the time of COVID-19.
TheaterJones: Take us through the thought process of deciding on a method to produce The Immigrant and let it be seen with COVID-19 protocol in mind. Was the delay in instructions from Actor’s Equity Association, as well as state protocols, the main reason for not letting an audience in the space? Then there are the complications of rehearsal and tech.
Jeffrey Schmidt: The two main motivators were safety and quality. Also, we just couldn't afford to do nothing, and necessity is the mother of invention. Early in May we streamed a live reading of Matt Lyle's new play The Texas Devil. The rehearsal process proved that video conferencing rehearsals can be very effective. The performance proved that you are limited when it comes to quality production value and internet reliability. Our process for The Immigrant kept everyone safe and distanced, but allowed for more production value, creativity and control of the final product.
You filmed scenes separately, one actor at a time on a green screen, and edited it together. I’m not aware of any theater attempting this method; most of the online performances we’ve seen have been filmed onstage productions shot before the pandemic shutdowns, or Zoom readings. Given that it’s not performed live, as with Zoom, why the decision to show The Immigrant at specific showtimes, rather than allow anyone to view it at any time within a two-week window, or within 24 hours of ticket purchase?
This, in a way, honors the spirit of live theater more. Knowing you have a limited time in which to view the show, is akin to making it to the theater before the curtain rises. This format more closely resembles our original agreement with the publisher which is based on our house size. It helps control how many people view it at a given time which is a concern of the publishers and AEA when we get back to being able to employ union actors.
The Immigrant works for this approach because there doesn't have to be physical contact between the characters. Are there stage directions that call for contact and how did you work around that? It seems like this process wouldn’t be doable for something that demands intimacy and/or fight direction, like A Streetcar Named Desire or The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
The script does call for more intimacy between actors, we chose to err on the side of caution and solve it in different ways. It would have been nice to see Haskell and Leah touch or kiss or see the guys shake hands. But once you give in to the overall concept of what we did, those things don't seem to matter as much. [As for Streetcar or Chad Deity], I don't have an answer for that, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. That's the silver lining to this giant shit sandwich we've been handed. New ideas. New solutions. Reevaluating what constitutes theater.
Do you feel there's anything lost by filming the actors separately, without them having the ability to react directly to the other actors? I assume when you were filming each, the stage manager or AD was reading the other characters' lines?
We mostly shot out of sequence to accommodate everyone's schedule, so sometimes the SM or AD would read lines. More often, the other actors would sit isolated and very far away from the other actors and small crew (all in masks) to say their lines. We had pictures of those actors on light stands for the actor on stage to play to and for eye line purposes.
What different challenges did you find in this process, as a director?
For me, my focus was split into several directions. Directing, scenic design, communicating with designers and the editor plus my normal Artistic Director responsibilities made the process difficult. On top of that, I was also the director of photography, cameraman and monitored mics and sound recording. Part of this was to save money and limit the people in the room, but also because I have that experience. This meant, as a director, I wasn't able to give my undivided attention to the actors. It also meant that some of my directing didn't happen until they were in front of the camera, which is typical on the broadcast and film side. Fortunately, I had great actors and Merri Brewer as my AD to help out.
Explain your process for scenic design using a green screen.
It hurt my brain. I had to render fully realized sets in CAD, export multiple angles to Photoshop for effects and layering. Each rendering was a lot larger than what you see in the final edit. I had to plan for any contingency which meant creating entire neighborhoods even though we might only see one house. Often, multiple versions of each set had to be created based on time of year and time passage. I had to figure out where actors would be placed in the renderings relative to the other actors in the scene. On the shooting days we actually used a video switcher to live key actors into the backgrounds to make sure each rendering would work in the final edit. Keeping track of eye-lines was fun, not. Going back and forth from 3-D to 2-D to 3-D is what hurt my brain. Having said all that, the whole process was exciting and enjoyable, mostly.
At this point, do you hope to have an audience in the space this year? Will this kind of production be the new normal, at least for the time being?
It's so hard to make those predictions. We're taking it one step at a time, trying to remain nimble enough to respond quickly to changing conditions. I will say having a digital offering each season is high on my priority list. It's a great way to reach new audiences. Creatively, it's immensely satisfying.
Why did you choose The Immigrant for you 19-20 season, and how has its message become more resonant as the country weighs the immigration debate, and given today's Supreme Court DACA decision.
The initial decision to produce the show was to look at the timely and urgent crisis at the Texas border through the lens of history. It was a bit subversive too. Those that avoid or discount issues such as these might be interested in a story about Texas history. Also, a significant portion of our patron base is Jewish, and, as Artistic Director, I had yet to produce anything that specifically spoke to them. Has it become more resonant now? The U.S. has always been and will always be a country of immigrants. More and more countries are becoming the same. Immigration will always be a topic for discussion as the “haves and have-nots” shift from one ethnic group to another. Plays like this provide context and a path to empathy.