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Friday, December 4, 2020

Alum’s award-winning play performed over livestream by theatre arts department

The play, “how to clean your room (and remember all your trauma),” was written by Western alum J. Chavez

Caption: Spencer’s bedroom set design. Photo courtesy of the production’s Facebook account.

By Jason Upton

Live productions are rare nowadays, but Western’s theatre arts department has a solution.

Starting Oct. 23, the department began live streaming “how to clean your room (and remember all your trauma),” a play written by WWU theater alum j. chavez. The play follows Spencer, the nonbinary lead, as they clean their room and contemplate their relationships with those around them.

This alternative performance will be streamed at 7:30 p.m. over YouTube on Oct. 23, 24, 30 and 31. The play won the 2020 Kennedy Center Undergraduate Playwriting Award for one-act plays.

“How to clean your room” was chosen to celebrate student work, said director Evan Mueller, an associate professor of voice/acting at Western.

“There was something about this play that has themes that have to do with the distance between people, and how difficult it can be to form relationships across distances, that’s an interesting fit for where we are in the world right now,” Mueller said.

Due to COVID-19 safety requirements, rehearsals and performances were run in Douglas Underground Theater with everyone masked and rehearsing 6 feet away from each other. The crew had permission to be unmasked on set, but chose to perform in masks after conducting research on the spread of the coronavirus, said Rich Brown, the theatre arts department chair at Western.

In addition to timely themes, the crew found “how to clean your room” well-structured for the conditions, Mueller said. Only four actors are present in the play, and puppets are used to relive memories, giving actors a way to distract the audience from their masks and get the puppets close together.

“There’s a lot of things about this play that are unique,” Mueller said. “We may not be able to do this kind of production with a whole lot of plays.”

Mueller’s advice to the actors, whose faces were only partly visible, was to “put all of your expression into the puppet.” The puppets allow for profound emotional life in the play and account for the joy and pain of the characters, Mueller said.

Both Mueller and the play’s lead, Walden Marcus, stressed the value of the stage managers in keeping the production sanitized. The stage managers helped coordinate sanitation protocols, limitations on numbers of people working in a physical space, air monitoring and filtration, distancing and masking.

“We all really owe it to the stage management team, Jarin [Johnsen-Krogh] and Nichole [Fahey],” Marcus said. “They are amazing; they show up so early, they stay so late making sure that everything is clean, that everything is handled really carefully.”

Marcus, a third-year student at Western, plays Spencer in their first faculty theater production at Western. Marcus describes how strongly they felt bound to the character.

“Spencer and I relate on some really funny levels,” Marcus said. “We both gravitate toward poetry as this expressive medium, but we use it for very different reasons. I use poetry to journal, whereas Spencer uses poetry to dissect events.”

The livestream aspect of the production is new for Marcus, who hopes the dark comedy will resonate with viewers over the internet.

“I really wish that I could see and feel an audience with us, and that’s something that I’m going to miss a lot, but I really hope that people will laugh hard,” Marcus said. “Just as much as it’s an emotional show with a lot of tense moments, it’s also really, really funny, and I hope that people can find the fullest in both the pain and the joy.”

Most of the crew found it much different performing in front of a distant audience without any direct response.

“I find myself more drawn to the other people in the space, because above anything, it’s us interacting with each other,” Marcus said.

Sophie Manning, a member of Western’s improv club Dead Parrots Society, noted the difficulty that comes with distanced and masked actors.

“I think we’re pretty dependent as humans to see someone’s whole face, and there’s a lot of nonverbal communication that comes through with facial expressions,” Manning said. 

Like Marcus, Manning said she thinks the relationship between actors becomes much more important.

“I think by really knowing the people you’re around and knowing who you’re working with can definitely help with how people communicate with masks on, especially in performance

settings,” Manning said. “Even when an audience can’t see somebody’s face, if the two people on stage are connecting in a very genuine way, the audience can pick up on it.”

John Purdie, the executive director at Mt. Baker Theatre, has seen many theaters cope with COVID-19 in many different ways.

“Theaters certainly around the country, and I would say around the world that I’m aware of, are experimenting with all kinds of ways to reach their audience because they can’t bring them into the theater itself,” Purdie said.

From Facebook live, to Vimeo, to drive-in concerts, Purdie said there have been many different outlets where live performances are being delivered. The Mt. Baker Theatre has partnered with the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra to bring their live performances to audiences via Vimeo, Purdie said.

Still, Purdie is reluctant to accept these venues as a new trend of live shows.

“Without doubt, there is nothing yet that will replicate the experience of being in a theater yourself seeing it live and in-person,” Purdie said.

In-person shows may be hard to replace, but WWU is still trying new ways to broadcast productions. After this series of performances, the WWU theatre arts department has some new events in mind, Brown said, starting with live staged readings over Zoom every Thursday and Friday of November. 

“We’ve taken our production budget, for normally producing the plays here, and we’ve used that to bring in a lot of diversity in our guest artists, playwrights, directors and actors who will be working with our students,” Brown said.

Besides the play being written by a Western theatre arts alum, nearly all the creative work on the play was done by students, which Mueller sees as a crucial aspect of the production.

“How to clean your room” is the only live theater performance Western is putting on for the next few months. Anyone is able to livestream the performances on YouTube for free, here.

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