Happy Hour on the Fringe: Theater in Quarantine
Zach Blackwood: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Zach Blackwood, artistic producer here at FringeArts, and today we invite you to join us for a happy hour deep dive into the world of Theater in Quarantine. Now I don’t just mean the idea of ‘theater’ in quarantine; I’m talking about a very specific company. Theater in Quarantine is a digital performance lab built out of an East Village closet measuring 4x8x2, just so you can really get that closet in your brain here. They host live performances every other Thursday on Youtube, and that means everything from an expressionistic musical portrait of Mother Teresa entitled I Am Sending You the Sacred Face to an adaptation of a polish science fiction story entitled The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy. That’s over 20 productions that they’ve performed so far! It’s really prolific output in a time when I know that a lot of people feel understandably challenged in generating new work. It’s extremely extremely powerful. Their shows are free, but people can donate at a link that we’re going to place in the episode description here as well as in our blog post. We’re chatting today with some folks from Theater in Quarantine about their newest work Blood Meal, what’s next for the company, and how you can stay engaged with their work. But first, let’s introduce our guests! Today we’re joined by Josh Gelb. Say “Hi!”
Josh Gelb: Hi there!
Zach: Josh is the founder of Theater in Quarantine as well as a performer and designer in Blood Meal. We’re also joined by Katie Rose McLaughlin, Movement Director and Costume Megamind for Blood Meal. Hi Katie Rose!
Katie Rose McLaughlin: Hi! Thank you for having us!
Zach: Absolutely! And finally, we’re so happy to welcome back Philadelphia’s own Scott Sheppard, writer of Blood Meal. Hi Scott!
Scott Sheppard: Hey! How’s it going?
Zach: You know, it’s good, all things considered.
Zach: I feel like that’s the most forbidden question right now, because everybody’s answer is like ‘good-ish, and I feel bad about that’, ‘good-ish, and I feel some guilt’, or just abject awfulness. But, anyhow, we’re not here to talk about awfulness. One thing that’s made this week for me more pleasant is just returning to Blood Meal, a piece that debuted on February 1st of this year. And I want to lay down some contextual groundwork before we jump into that piece, so I was hoping, Josh, can you give us a little more lore about Theater in Quarantine, how this company came to be, and what kind of structural and ideological elements compose the company?
Josh: Well, when the stay-at-home orders came in and all the theaters shut down, I found myself with—as most people—a lot of time on my hands. And this was back in last March, so I was mostly doing a lot of odd jobs around my apartment and watching, you know, a lot of Zoom readings, which I wasn’t particularly into. And finally, cleaning out my closet, I realized that my closet had the same aspect ratio as my iPhone, 16×9, and suddenly I began to imagine a performance venue in that space. And kind of thinking about what we were missing in all of these Zoom readings was the full body; and Katie Rose and I, of course, come from more of a physical theater background, and so we started to to look to fill the void of performance that was so evident, and basically we began to conceive of Theater in Quarantine as a sort of proscenium style performance space. We originally started making pre-recorded pieces, mostly studies in movement and how the digital could interact with the tactile, and ultimately began pushing to live performance. And about a month after we launched, we did our first live stream and since then have been performing, at first, every other week. Now, it’s about every three weeks.
Zach: To describe it as proscenium work I think is really really vital in helping to talk about what distinguishes this from other work that’s happening digitally. It feels very very live; it feels very very rigorous in its construction; and it does really really lean on the whole body. I’m just really really impressed with all the work that I’ve seen so far, and the work really challenges the limitations of digital theater and its liveness and its rigor. I was just really really impressed with it. I cannot more highly encourage everyone at home to go check this out. Can you give us some background—and Scott and Katie, feel free to jump in—about how this creative team came together for Blood Meal, and how Scott and Katie Rose entered the fold of Theater in Quarantine.
Katie Rose: Sure! Yeah, so like Josh said, at the very beginning when Josh, you know, painted his closet white and reinforced it with some plywood and said, “I think I have a theater,” we’ve been making work. I came on as Co-creative Director in what…May-ish?
Josh: Yeah, somewhere around that.
Katie Rose: Somewhere around that. So Josh and I have been running Theater in Quarantine together since then. But before that, Josh and Scott had worked on a piece called topside, which I encourage everyone to check out, and had such a great experience—the piece was amazing—that Josh and Scott have been talking—I’m sort of answering for both of them—they’ve been talking ever since. And I want to say that we started having formal conversations about Blood Meal in like December-ish, November/December-ish. Scott, do you want to jump in?
Scott: Sure! Yeah, I had so much fun working on topside with Josh, and it was kind of one of those pre-covered gifts, because Josh and I met a couple of times. And we’re hanging out in New York, but we really had like one—I don’t know if it’s like this is like my my narrative of it—but we just had a really great night in the East Village one time after watching an actual live play A Hunger Artist, which Josh worked on with an amazing team of artists. And I went to see that play, and we ended up hanging out late at night and-
Josh: You can tell the truth…or a version of the truth.
Scott: We hung out at a secret bar…with a bowling alley…that Josh also kind of, like, created. The location shall not be disclosed, but also it’s been shut down for a year, so what’re you going to do? But we ended up hanging out late into the night and bowling in this crazy weird bar in the basement of a, you know, place, and we just kind of hit it off. And then like weeks later we were thrust into quarantine, and I was watching the stuff Josh was making, from California. I had to travel over there to…was with my partner kind of taking care of family in that first moment, when there was so much uncertainty. And yeah, started thinking about, like, how to stay active and how to keep making work that had a full design component, how to continue writing and collaborating. So, after topside—we had such a good time—I’ve been kind of trying to, you know, pitch Josh on some other ideas and, yeah, this notion of a Blood Meal kind of came out of those discussions.
Zach: Well I’m glad it did. I really really really like this piece. I’ve said it a lot of times, but I just…it ticks a lot of my boxes. I’m a huge, like, Twilight Zone fan, and I love the snappiness of this piece, so let’s talk a little bit about it. Blood Meal’s a work by Theater in Quarantine, and it surrounds the lives of Sam and Lindsay, a couple that has been disguising their blood-sucking insect infestation with canned cheerfulness, all in a desperate attempt to avoid having guests over and having them discover the romantic and entomological turmoil running through the relationship of this isolated couple. Sound familiar? Yes. So I really really appreciated both how topical this piece is but also how enduring it is. It really kind of gravitates around a lot of feelings like social shame, the stakes of interaction and our personal space. And it also fits really nicely into, Scott, your body of work as I understand it, you know, in its capacity to prompt these really resonant social commentaries through these canny parallels. Scott, how did this piece come together for you, and what were your ambitions in making it?
Scott: Well, I really appreciate the setup on all that, because it is kind of one of my strategies to try and kind of, like, find my way through some back door to talk about things that are resonant and happening now without talking about them directly, or giving some some breath and some like space for us to access them in a perpendicular way or a backdoor way. So yeah, in a lot of my creative processes in the past year or so, there’s been just a lot of things happening around the performance of, you know, being okay or being healthy or being progressive, and there was something different than before in the way in which that was being played out and the way in which that was kind of changing the way that people would talk about things in groups. We came up with this term, in another room, called ‘slippage towards absolution’. We started to notice this, like, ‘slippage towards absolution’ where everyone wanted to make sure that they were absolved of any wrongdoing as they progressed through the world; and sometimes that was very much like how I’m handling COVID or how I’m talking about social justice vis-a-vis art-making. And in those circles there was just this…it wasn’t exactly looking like, “Let’s look at cancel culture directly,” or like “Let’s look at, you know, the politics around Trump and his misinformation directly.” But we were more interested in, like, the ecosystem, the ripple effects of that kind of ecosystem, and I feel like Sam and Linds are satirized, turned-up version of the people we are afraid we might become if we allow that slippage towards absolution to rule our lives rather than some kind of, you know, actual grappling with the problems at hand or trying to live authentically through them or face them or something. So, yeah, the insect infestation…we definitely talked a lot about houses and spaces and, you know, the paranoia and the shame and the anxiety around bedbugs specifically, but there was this kind of sense all along that it was getting us to these other truths about this moment in 2021.
Josh: It’s funny, Scott, because I feel like actually, for a long time, it was really bed bug-rooted.
Scott: Yeah, you’re right. That came later. That, like, snuck way its way in when we were like, “What is this? What is this really about?” And it kind of was always lurking there, but it wasn’t until much more recently that that I was like, “Oh, that’s what this is about.” Yeah, because there’s so much exciting stuff just with the ‘bugness’ and, like, bugs and body horror and all sorts of videos on the internet about squirmy things, which are there too but you know.
Josh: Well, a little bit about how we work at Theater in Quarantine, as some context: because we’re working…I mean, at the time we were doing shows every other week, you know, our pipeline is is actually pretty short because we’re always looking for what the next thing is going to be. Scott came to us—I want to say at the end of the summer—approached me about doing something new, and only around—I don’t know—October/November did we actually start to meet up and look through some pages. We rehearsed the piece entirely over the course of three weeks before the premiere with, of course, Lee Minora, whose name has not been mentioned yet so we should say Lee’s name, because the other sort of major thing about this particular piece is that it’s a two-hander. Principally, at Theater in Quarantine, we’ve been doing one-person pieces, mostly because it’s easier that way, and there was a major technical leap to be made in order to get audio sync to work out in order to involve a second performer in a remote space. I just wanted to throw that out there.
Katie Rose: Totally! And the fact that we actually had a piece of software, written specifically for us, that made it possible for us to do a two-person show.
Zach: I’m so happy you’re bringing this up for a couple of reasons. First of all, Lee Minora stunned me in this piece. I am Linds; I have politicked my house to that same degree. The technical wizardry of this piece is part of what makes it so fantastic to watch, and a lot of those elements of “How did they do this?” fall away really quickly while you’re watching it and you get really really absorbed in the story and, kind of, the stakes of the interactions between these two people, but it is a tremendous feat and it was recorded live, which shocked me in looking at it. So can we talk a little bit about…so there are two closets actually, right?
Katie Rose: Yes. Yeah, there’s a closet in the downstairs theater at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and then Josh’s closet in Josh’s apartment.
Josh: My closet is an actual closet, and the La MaMa closet is one we built for some earlier pieces, so that’s a freestanding closet.
Zach: And then talk to me about this software: is this around some of the video design components that are happening—the stitching of these, kind of, multiple video feeds together?
Katie Rose: No, I was gonna say, those are actually two separate things. Alex Hawthorn, who is a brilliant sound designer, wrote this software for us that allowed us to sync. And then, Josh, why don’t you talk about the video.
Josh: Sure. We use a program called Isadora to do all of our video processing. It’s actually a theatre program for projection that’s principally used for dance for a long time. And we’ve sort of turned it on its head a little bit, because it used to be a program where you would do video processing for live performance on stage, and we’ve inverted it to become our production studio, where we can do live performance and then send it digitally to YouTube. So that’s where we do our video but, as Katie Rose said, it’s sort of two different systems; we bring the video feed in through Skype, and the audio feed has always been the trickiest thing to sync up. As so many people have complained about right now, we usually have to rely on things like Zoom or, you know, whatever video conference software. But this new software by Alex allowed us to measure and control the delay at multiple points along the stream and adjust them in order to allow Lee and I to actually effectively talk to each other in real time, or something really close to it. And so that was the trickiest part of this entire process; and I’ll be completely honest and say it dominated the rehearsal process. We were very lucky that, you know, our team was capable to just jump in, make choices. I pulled some late nights stringing it all together so that, you know, once the audio system was working to the best of its ability—and that’s a whole other story—we could concentrate for what…like two or three days on actually putting the piece together the way you saw it. But, again, that was just with the audio working to the best of its ability, because it did keep on failing until the night of.
Zach: Isn’t that the way. You would never know. You truly wouldn’t. And I was so impressed with the work and the ability to not feel that I was watching digital theater. I think we all make certain, like, assumptions and concessions going into that experience, and those all fell apart for me immediately. It’s just really really strong work that asset maps, kind of, the digital environment rather than trying to replicate a live theater experience. Just, really, fantastic work.
Katie Rose: It’s great that you say that, because that’s actually something that we really work hard on at Theater in Quarantine is (A) making sure that ‘liveness’ is like first and foremost on our minds and on our audience’s mind, and it’s something we actually talk about in rehearsal every day, and then also that we are making something essentially new, that we’re not trying to replicate a theater experience, because you can’t replicate being in a room with people in this digital space. So what we’re trying to do is create something new that uses the best parts of theatre that we know and love but makes it wholly new and more exciting.
Zach: Well I think you’re hitting the mark. I’m really really really happy. I just…I don’t get this feeling as often as I’m used to, right, of going and seeing a work and just walking away and feeling like, “Oh, you know, that just smashed it, knocked it out of the park,” and that’s the feeling that I get watching it. So, everybody at home, please go check out Blood Meal. It’s on YouTube. And how can people best support you all moving forward?
Katie Rose: You can subscribe to our YouTube channel which is, you know, ‘YouTube.com/TheaterinQuarantine’. You can like us on all the social media platforms. Also, on YouTube, there’s a link to our Fractured Atlas page where, if you’re feeling generous, you can give us some donations to keep making our work. But really, subscribing on YouTube is, right now, the best thing that you can do.
Zach: So I just want to kind of transition here and talk a little bit about the future of the company, what’s next, and have you considered—of course, you know, once we are out of the most limiting part of the the COVID experience, or once we’re able to safely gather together— what role might these pieces serve then, and how might they be differently contextualized. Will they always live on YouTube, in this space? Have you had thoughts about exhibitions and other things? I’m just really really interested in how this project lives on, both in its current iteration and then post-COVID, whatever that means.
Josh: Well, you know, my feelings about this change daily, with the news, I feel. But we like to think that the work will continue living on YouTube. I mean, I would also hope that it becomes more than just a time capsule to the past year, because I don’t think digital theatre as we know it is going to go away. I think it’s just going to keep evolving and potentially transform, or has the potential to transform, into something of a new artform. And so we’re really excited to be experimenting and playing in that sandbox right now, when it still hasn’t quite found its function or utility yet. So we are hoping that we’re going to continue working in the digital space, but we’re also trying to see if there’s room for a hybrid version of the work, where the audience can not only see the digital end product but what I consider the most theatrical part of the process, which is the actual making of it, you know, seeing the sausage. Like, what I see in my apartment is particularly dynamic because, again, we’re playing with gravity so much. We’re compositing multiple performers. The process of making this work is just really fascinating, and so we’re hoping to kind of create a theatrical experience that allows us to show both sides of the work.
Zach: Oh, I’m so excited for that! And I also just want to point out, I mean, the strides that you’re making in terms of just advancements in the field of how artists can collaborate, flattening proximity to a certain degree really opens up this huge huge world of who we can collaborate with, of what stories can be told. I’m just deeply impressed by it. I imagine those things will continue to be useful to you, in person or virtual.
Josh: Yeah, I don’t think we knew that we were capable of it until now. I mean, Scott’s pieces always somehow make enormous demands on our system, starting with topside and then, of course, with Blood Meal. And so it’s always really exciting when we get out of a Scott project, it’s like, “Oh wow! There’s so much more possible now.” So, yeah, suddenly distance isn’t as much of an issue as it had been. And what’s wonderful—I think—of course, the best thing to come out of this year is the accessibility of performance, you know. Digitally, anyone can access this work, but now we’re sort of reaching this new phase where suddenly, like, “Oh wow! We can create work with performers across the country.”
Zach: Yeah, it just opens up so so many possibilities. Oh, man, I am gonna say it again: please go watch this piece, all of our listeners. Please, you will really really enjoy it. I did. I know you will. Do you guys have any final thoughts before we go into some of our closing information here?
Scott: Thanks for having us on. Keep watching Theater in Quarantine. They’re gonna be doing lots of very exciting things—I’m sure—in the next however many days/years.
Josh: Yes, thank you so much for having us!
Katie Rose: Y-
Zach: Thank you all for joining us! Thank you Katie Rose…sorry. Go ahead, Katie.
Katie Rose: Oh, no, I was just going to say thank you, and you can check out our next show which is closet works. We’re doing a premiere by Josh and I and Colin Kelly and Brian Bose, and that will be on February 25th.
Zach: Please don’t miss it. I will be there with bells on, in the chat, saying nice things. Thank you, Katie Rose. Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Scott Sheppard. And thank you, listeners, for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and download the FringeArts app. Thanks again to our guests from Theater in Quarantine: Joshua Geld, Katie Rose McLaughlin, and Scott Sheppard. Thanks guys!