Small au­di­ences get in­ti­mate view of Do­rian Gray

Fire­house The­atre of­fers 1-man show for 6 peo­ple nightly

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NEWS - BY JO­HANNA ALONSO Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch jalonso@times­dis­patch.com

RICH­MOND TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Watch­ing Fire­house The­atre’s adap­ta­tion of the Os­car Wilde novel

“The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray,” you would be for­given for think­ing it had been de­signed to be per­formed in the midst of a pan­demic. The one-man cast, the pur­pose­fully eco­nom­i­cal set de­sign and the in­ti­mate con­tent all seem per­fect for pre­sen­ta­tion in a so­cially dis­tanced space.

Re­ally, though, this adap­ta­tion has been in the works for the past two years, and the part­ner­ship at the cen­ter of it— be­tween direc­tor Shirley Ka­gan and ac­tor Billy Christo­pher Maupin — goes back over 15 years.

Ka­gan and Maupin have been friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors since they met in 2003, and had long wanted to work on a pro­ject to­gether. Orig­i­nally con­ceived in part­ner­ship with Fire­house The­atre as a one-man pro­duc­tion of “Our Town,” the team de­cided on “Do­rian Gray,” a work in the public do­main, af­ter fail­ing to ac­quire the rights to adapt “Our Town.”

How­ever, Ka­gan suf­fered health is­sues in

2019, de­lay­ing the pro­ject, which was orig­i­nally slated to pre­miere last sum­mer, by a year.

While it be­came clear in early March that Fire­house The­atre would be clos­ing due to COVID-19, Maupin, Ka­gan and Joel Bassin, the theater’s pro­duc­ing artis­tic direc­tor, were re­luc­tant to again de­lay the pro­ject. But at the same time, the so­lu­tion many other the­aters across the coun­try had found — us­ing Zoom and other video con­fer­enc­ing apps to live-stream pro­duc­tions — did not ap­peal to the team.

“Theater, for the three of us, re­quires an au­di­ence and a per­former to be in a shared space,” Bassin said.

On the other hand, the idea of even fill­ing the 99seat theater to half-ca­pac­ity seemed far too risky.

The de­ci­sion to in­vite up to six au­di­ence mem­bers per night was reached grad­u­ally, Bassin said. He ini­tially con­sid­ered sell­ing only one ticket per night and mar­ket­ing it as “a solo per­for­mance for a sin­gle au­di­ence mem­ber,” but wor­ried about os­tra­ciz­ing the­ater­go­ers who wanted to bring friends or fam­ily mem­bers.

From there, he con­sid­ered whether he would be com­fort­able man­ag­ing two au­di­ence mem­bers, then four, then six, block­ing off seats with “re­served” signs to help him vi­su­al­ize how big a six-per­son au­di­ence re­ally was. He waf­fled over whether eight at­ten­dees would be man­age­able, ul­ti­mately de­cid­ing it wouldn’t.

To fur­ther re­duce the risk of spread­ing COVID19, Fire­house The­atre de­vel­oped a list of safety pro­to­cols that would be sent to each au­di­ence mem­ber prior to their ar­rival at the theater, along with a form they can use to or­der drinks ahead of time, al­low­ing for con­tact­less bar ser­vice.

Pa­trons will not be per­mit­ted to en­ter with­out a face mask, though the theater will provide masks to those who do not bring their own, and Bassin will take au­di­ence mem­bers’ tem­per­a­tures at the door. Each au­di­ence mem­ber will be as­signed their own bath­room or stall to use through­out the 2½-hour per­for­mance. Au­di­ence mem­bers will be as­signed num­bers that dic­tate the or­der in which they must leave the theater dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion and at the play’s con­clu­sion.

Even pa­trons who come to the pro­duc­tion with a spouse or room­mate will be seated sep­a­rately. This is both a means of main­tain­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing with­out giv­ing spe­cial treat­ment to cer­tain at­ten­dees, as well as a way of en­cour­ag­ing au­di­ence mem­bers to ex­pe­ri­ence the show in­di­vid­u­ally, as “a reader of the novel would ex­pe­ri­ence the story,” ac­cord­ing to the list of safety mea­sures.

“When we read, it’s a very soli­tary and pri­vate ex­pe­ri­ence … We’re sort of lost in our imag­i­na­tion and we’re hav­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence di­rectly with the ma­te­rial we’re read­ing,” Bassin said, call­ing Fire­house The­atre’s adap­ta­tion of “Do­rian Gray” a hy­brid be­tween lit­er­a­ture and theater.

On top of the so­cial­ly­dis­tanced in-per­son per­for­mances, five nights of “Do­rian Gray” will be live-streamed. The show opened June 18. Bassin was not in­ter­ested stream­ing an un­mov­ing, sin­gle­cam­era shot of stage or pre-record­ing a per­for­mance and putting it on­line, ar­gu­ing that the lat­ter con­sti­tutes a movie, not a the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. In­stead, the play will be shot live from three an­gles and the direc­tor will use a con­trol panel to switch be­tween them.

There is cer­tainly dis­ap­point­ment that such a long-an­tic­i­pated pro­ject has been up­ended by coro­n­avirus. But there is also ex­cite­ment that “The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray,” as one of the first works of live theater to fol­low months of iso­la­tion, will be such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­duc­tion.

Ka­gan said he could not have man­aged it with any other ac­tor. Ini­tially, so­cially dis­tanced re­hearsals for “The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray” were held us­ing the video con­fer­enc­ing plat­form GoToMeet­ing, with Maupin us­ing an out-of-com­mis­sion mid­dle school band class­room as his re­hearsal space. De­spite the un­usual setup, though, re­hearsals felt “strangely nor­mal” to Ka­gan.

“If this had been an ac­tor I had never met be­fore, the show def­i­nitely would have suf­fered from us not be­ing in the same room,” she said. “But be­cause we knew each other so well, that made up for a lot of stuff. I could not have done this show with a dif­fer­ent part­ner.”

Per­form­ing in front of such a sparse au­di­ence has proved a dif­fi­cult ad­just­ment for Maupin. “Theater is an in­ter­change be­tween the per­form­ers and the au­di­ence, just en­ergy-wise,” he said. “Even if those two au­di­ence mem­bers are giv­ing ev­ery­thing, it’s quite dif­fer­ent … than it is with a hun­dred peo­ple giv­ing a lit­tle bit.” At the same time, he has found it “spe­cial” to share the story of “Do­rian Gray” on such an in­ti­mate scale.

Look­ing to­ward the re­main­der of Fire­house The­atre’s planned sea­son,

• • •

FRI­DAY, JUNE 26, 2020

it is un­likely that other pro­duc­tions, like “The Zom­bie Life,” the world­premiere play planned to fol­low “Do­rian Gray,” will be able to take the same ap­proach. Be­cause some mem­bers of its five-per­son cast feel un­com­fort­able re­hears­ing in the midst of the pan­demic, the pro­duc­tion will have to be post­poned.

In the in­terim, Bassin hopes to com­bine the need for vir­tual theater with the ex­ist­ing de­mands of the re­hearsal process. “The Zom­bie Life” cen­ters around a ther­a­pist who tries to sell his clients on the ben­e­fits of be­com­ing a zom­bie, so Bassin came up with the idea of the ac­tor who plays the ther­a­pist con­duct­ing im­pro­vised “ther­apy ses­sions” over video calls, as a method of com­bin­ing char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing.

“Day by day, week by week, we’re ad­just­ing,” Bassin said. “Our prime direc­tive is that we will not ac­cept any risk for the staff, the artists or the au­di­ence. It’s a pretty straight­for­ward [cri­te­rion]—that if we can’t con­trol and elim­i­nate risk, we’re just not go­ing to be able to do the show. And then we’ll fig­ure that out what that means af­ter we make that de­ci­sion.”

TOM TOPINKA

Billy Christo­pher Maupin stars in Fire­house The­atre’s one-man adap­ta­tion of “The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray.” The theater is al­low­ing just six au­di­ence mem­bers per per­for­mance.

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