As COVID-19 runs rampant in the United States, many fret about the future of theater and live performances. The possibility of sitting in a packed auditorium feels alien. But rather than patiently await the final stage of reopening, a path lightened by uncertainty, the impassioned Talia Light Rake ’20 made an accessible, virtual version of theater — for a cause.
Once Kenyon students found out they would not be returning to campus in March, Light Rake knew she could not showcase her senior drama thesis play ATHENA by Gracie Gardner ’13. Light Rake had been exchanging emails back and forth with Gardner in the five weeks leading up to the in-person production. “This [collaboration] showed me that you didn’t need to be physically together with someone in order to collaborate with them,” Light Rake wrote in an email to the Collegian.
After Kenyon announced it would be remote for the rest of the year, Light Rake had to reckon with the cancellation of her senior thesis production. Then, she conjured up an idea. Her numerous emails with Gardner had proved that theater could be possible without working in person. Thus Playdate Theatre — the first-ever online theater company — was born and held its first new play development conference in late March.
The first play development conference consisted of 50 playwrights, many of whom are current Kenyon students and alumni. In five days, the theater artists created plays based on a prompt, and were then grouped together randomly to anonymously review each other’s final products.
The success of the first round inspired Playdate to go ahead with Round Two, in which over 70 theater artists from across the country received the prompt “Find a Way or Make One” and collaborated on their plays over the course of nine days. According to the description of Round Two on Playdate Theatre’s website, “We challenged our artists to explore what a play looks like when it is limited to the confines of the computer screen.” Playdate coined this “The Screen-Play.”
Playdate chose to produce six of the plays from the Round Two Screen-Plays conference for Find A Way Or Make One: A Virtual Play Fundraiser, raising money for LA YWCA’s COVID-19 Relief Fund and Color for Change. Tickets can be purchased for a $5 donation, but they also offer an all-access pass, which includes every show plus a talk-back with the cast.
Light Rake highlighted the distinction between virtual readings and virtual theater productions, the latter being what Playdate will premiere. With the help of Miles Shebar ’20, who is the technical director for Playdate Theatre’s fundraiser, these plays utilize advanced Zoom functions to go beyond a typical online reading or performance. As the technical director, Shebar must also bear the pressure of addressing any technical difficulties that come about when livestreaming the plays in high-definition.
Alongside Light Rake, Samara Handelsman ’21 serves as the director of artistic operations, handling the details and logistics of Playdate’s projects, including the current second conference of screenplays. Both directors have found there are advantages to the world of online theater, one of which is its accessibility. “It’s amazing to have a rehearsal room filled with people from both coasts, and we even have a designer who currently lives in South America!” Handelsman wrote in an email to the Collegian. “In this way, more connection is possible between artists now than ever before.”
Shebar, Handelsman and Light Rake all emphasized the graceful transition from live theater to online performance. “Personally, I was scared at first of losing the magic of in person performance,” Handelsman wrote in an email to the Collegian, “but I am really proud of what we have accomplished with this virtual theatre festival. We really have captured something special.”
In addition to the current Round Two fundraiser, Playdate is already counting on a Round Three, with a new group of actors and playwrights, although they have yet to announce a date. Moreover, Playdate is hosting an Emerging Playwrights Summit for high school students, which will start Aug. 9.
As for the future of Playdate, Light Rake does not believe virtual and live theater are mutually exclusive and plans to continue virtual festivals and development conferences even after stages reopen. As she wrote in an email to the Collegian, “By being the first-ever online theater company, we are able to explore and expand way beyond the confines of The Black Box.”