“We can wait to go back to an uncertain ‘normal’ or we can work with what is,” Mona Wood-Patterson said in a recent interview.
Co-founder and artistic director of Merely Players, Wood-Patterson had to cancel the company’s spring production of “Matilda” and prepare for an indefinite hiatus. But little keeps this particular cultural leader away from the next project, whatever it might be.
“The genesis for our new project came about a week ago when I realized in a profound way that theaters won’t be opening any time soon,” she said. “We want to make theater in whatever form is available to us. Our actors and creatives are eager to get back to work, our audience needs levity and we all need stories that reflect life.”
A COVID-19 story for our timeWood-Patterson said she wondered what story to tell and how the Players could work in an unfamiliar form, possibly Zoom. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” popped into her mind.
“Because Alice is thrust down a rabbit hole into a world where she must question who she is,” she said. “She’s in a world where there are no familiar rules. What could possibly more applicable to the pandemic world we live in than that? Nothing makes sense; there is no normal. Everything seems surreal.
“So, I started adapting the Alice stories into a mashup tale for modern times,” she said. “I have written other adaptations – most recently our version of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ performed with 20MOONS, a creative dance company. And Charles was on board.” Charles Ford is a master puppeteer, scene designer, technical director, co-founder of the Players and Wood-Patterson’s husband.
Unknown territoryWith a 21-character script quickly in hand and Ford working on props and animations, Wood-Patterson knew she needed someone with specific film-editing skills.
“I called my friend and former student Adam Fontana,” she said.
Fontana, who once played a memorable Tevye in a Durango High School production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” has become an Equity Actor with considerable technical experience. He and his wife, Erika Vetter, have returned in summertime to participate in Merely Players productions. The couple is based in Seattle, where Vetter is completing her Master of Fine Arts. She will take on the central role in the Players first virtual production with Fontana as director of photography/film editor.
“The whole idea began with just Mona’s script,” Fontana said. “And the only outlet was an ‘online show.’ Luckily, we have a decades-long relationship, and communication flows effortlessly when we’re trying to piece together a production. Working with creatives and cast alike while being isolated has been a huge challenge.”
“We watched what other companies have done with virtual theater,” Wood-Patterson said. “And we decided to innovate and embrace a new model entirely.”
Casting “I had no idea who would be available,” Wood-Patterson said. “So, I contacted all our Merely Players actors and put out an offer, telling them that anyone who wants to can play with us. We ended up with a cast of 38, so I added some extra flowers, for example. Each actor will make a fun cameo appearance.
“After two rehearsals, cast members have to individually record themselves and upload their videos to Dropbox. Adam will take these videos and edit them together to create the look and feel of Zoom with some fun special effects thrown in. We are in new territory, and it’s fun to challenge ourselves within this new framework. No one is exactly sure how this is all going to come together, but we are all fiercely committed to excellence.”
To name but a few from the local roster: Linda Mack, Jenny Fitts Reynolds, Carlie Grice and Joy Kilpatrick. Maureen May has been given the delectable role of the Queen of Hearts. Durango High School Drama Director Ben Mattson will be the Pirate and Durango Arts Center stalwart Jason Lythgoe will enliven the Mad Hatter. Last weekend, Lythgoe and Mattson appeared in Silverton’s Theatre Mine “Zoom Alice,” an adaptation by Mollie Mook-Fiddler, which was performed live and can be seen on the TTM website. The Alice saga seems to be a template for our time.
Wood-Patterson assembled a company filled mostly with locals plus alumni from DHS days and Merely Players summers, as well as extended company members.
“We have actors from four time zones,” she said.
Equity Actor Mischa Fristensky (New York) portrays the Cheshire Cat; Elizabeth Grey (Denver) is Tweedledee, along with her husband, Anthony Kingsley, who is contributing original music; Amanda Arcomano (New York) plays the Queen of Spades; Shea Costa (Houston) will be the Queen of Clubs; and Conor Sheehan (Los Angeles) will be the inimitable White Rabbit.
CostumesScript in hand, key technical and creative assistance lined up and an eager cast ready to go, Wood-Patterson had already consulted with veteran costumer JoAnn Nevils.
“We spent 12 hours gathering and organizing costumes and props out in my driveway for the cast to pick up in a socially-distanced way.” Wood Patterson said. “JoAnn and I had the only true in-person meeting when we pored through costumes. The rest we mailed. Every actor is responsible for their costume and makeup.”
And each actor had to self-film their part. The videos were then sent to Fontana for editing.
“Timing and quality will vary,” Wood-Patterson said.
Final cut Fontana’s task is to collect and edit 38 separate videos plus Ford’s title graphics, animations and backgrounds into an aesthetic whole.
“Extensive editing on my end will give the feel of a Zoom experience,” Fontana said. “But it will be a Zoom conference that takes place in a fantasy land, aka Wonderland.
“Our ‘opening night’ is simply the first time the video will be available to watch,” Fontana said. “In order to make a seamless experience with magical elements, a recorded video is a must. That way, viewers will not have to deal with common Zoom issues, inconsistent audio and video, and disruptions from viewers. Initially, we didn’t have any idea what this was going to be or look like. We just knew we had to create something to keep the arts community of Durango strong when the future is full of uncertainty.”
When Fontan sent the above email notes, he had 90% of the videos in hand.
“I still have hours and hours of work before we have a final product,” he said. “Our audience is in for a very special and unique experience.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.