“We’re Always Skirting That Breaking Point”
With Bedbugs, Skiing, and Snazzy Technology, Theater in Quarantine Pushes New Boundaries
February 1, 2021
The day of the show.
It was two hours to showtime, and the Zoom faces looked despairing.
Blood Meal, Scott R. Sheppard’s new play presented online by Theater in Quarantine, was going live that night, but performers Joshua William Gelb and Lee Minora had just abandoned their final run-through.
Sound and video were way out of sync. The actors, who were performing from two different locations, couldn’t hear each other. The issues weren’t entirely new, but they’d grown much worse—right at the last moment.
Gelb’s computer needed to rest for two hours before show or risk overheating when they went live. They were out of time.
In the chat, sound designer Kate Marvin simply typed: “fuuuuuck”
“I’m setting you up for failure,” Sheppard recalled fretting to his collaborators just three weeks earlier.
Theater in Quarantine (TiQ) streams live work from an eight by four by two closet in Gelb’s East Village apartment. When Sheppard first wrote for them last June, he kept it closet-sized: That play, Topside, was about two men trapped in a tiny bunker.
TiQ has grown and expanded since. Now co-run by Katie Rose McLaughlin (also the movement director), the company has streamed ambitious works like The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy, in which an astronaut confronts multiple versions of himself, and I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, a musical portrait of Mother Teresa. Each new piece has expanded the boundaries of what seemed possible in digital theater.
Still, they’d yet to crack the challenge of two actors interacting from separate locations. Their one attempt, Notes From An Enumerator, was a technical failure. A new piece of software, designed by collaborator Alex Hawthorn, might smooth over the wrinkles. But it was as yet untested.
Blood Meal, about a couple trapped in their home by a bed-bug infestation, had to be a two-hander. Still Sheppard worried. Was he dooming his collaborators?
“They were like, ‘Shut up,’” he laughed. “‘Just do the thing.’”
January 15, 2021
An early planning meeting; 17 days until the performance.
Gelb shows off some dollhouse designs. To achieve the effect of moving between rooms in a large home, two actors will be digitally “dropped” into a specially built dollhouse.
They debate: How many floors and rooms? Should the layout be logical, or impossible? Sheppard approves of House #2 — a “white, clean symmetrical design.” Gelb agreed. “Looks like a place where you can confront your demons.”
Gelb and Sheppard do a read of the latest draft. Zoom struggles to keep up with the frenetic pace the play demands.
“Do they lose their goddamn minds?” asked McLaughlin of the central couple. It’s a tone question, and one that will prove integral. How big are we going here?
January 20, 2021
First day of tech; 12 days until the performance. Comedian and writer Lee Minora has been cast opposite Gelb.
Gelb shows off the final dollhouse design—then, casually, enters the dollhouse as a tiny version of himself. Minora’s jaw drops as the tiny Gelb moves around.
“I feel like a child who just had a quarter pulled out of their ear,” said Minora.
“We’re not magicians,” laughed Gelb.
“I think you are!” she insisted.
For the next two weeks Minora was stationed at La MaMa on East 4th Street, where the second “closet” was set up. Most of the time, the busy chatter of Zoom kept her from thinking about being alone during a pandemic in a large, empty theater.
“It didn’t feel that lonely during it,” she said. “I could always hear Josh talking.”
When the day ended and the computer closed, though, “the loneliness came.”
“The HVAC sounded like someone was coming to kill me every night—boing, bang, smash, boom,” she said. “I was like, ‘Hurry, gather your belongings and run! You’re all alone here!’”
January 25, 2021
Seven days until the performance. Video designer Stivo Arnoczy presents the play’s opening image: a huge bug emerging from a fireplace, and then curling up on a couch.
Everyone was thrilled: Aided by Kate Marvin’s creepy underscoring, the image was unsettling and totally delightful.
It also set an almost horror-like mood. Watching it crystallized something for Sheppard: a tonal shift he was coming to embrace.
Sheppard imagined an absurd, manic style to Blood Meal as he wrote it, drawing inspiration from the sketches of Kate Berlant and John Early. Technology had other ideas.
Gelb and Minora were struggling with the in-ears that connected them remotely. Keeping up with each other at all was a challenge, let alone going that fast.
But out of a mix of technical constraints and creative process they had, maybe, found something better.
“We discovered, ‘Oh, it’s actually a melodrama,’” said Minora. She started delivering lines like “If we are serious about fighting these bugs, we must always doubt that we are free of them!” totally straight, and the descent into madness grew both clearer and funnier.
Not only that, but a light-hearted class critique that Sheppard barely intended is drawn out. Turns out Blood Meal is about the clash between self-sacrifice for the larger good (sound familiar?) and our desire for “simple American pleasures,” as Sheppard put it.
In the final version of the play, he said, “We turn that into something grand, and then laugh at how silly that conflict is.”
“That was all hiding in there,” he added.
January 28, 2021
Four days until the performance. Time to ski.
Blood Meal ends with our couple throwing caution to the wind and going skiing. As a sheet-white background envelops them, Gelb and Minora fade farther and farther away while miming absurd ski gestures.
The team laughed hysterically as they watched. “Magic!” yelled McLaughlin.
“Those hips!” said Sheppard as the actors gyrated. “That is so funny to me.” Could it be even bigger, he wondered? Sheppard stood and started miming huge skiing gestures himself to demonstrate.
After a few tries, they found it. “I’m in a deep-ass squat to sell this,” said Minora.
McLaughlin draws on her background in dance and clowning to orient performers quickly in TiQ. The demands are contradictory—big dramatic gestures and movements, within a very limited amount of space.
She and Minora at one point decamped into a breakout room just to work through movement: everything from how leg positions register, to how to raise your arms to suggest anger, but wait, not that high, now they’ve disappeared—oh, and not in that direction, your hand will fly through Josh’s head.
As Gelb said on one particularly challenging day: “There is no room to act. It’s a closet.”
February 1, 2021
And we return to the day of the show.
A snowstorm hit. Luckily, Minora is staying within walking distance of La MaMa. But everyone is a little worried about internet connections holding up.
Then came that 4 p.m. run.
McLaughlin drafted a text to the press agent, saying the show won’t be happening.
As a last resort, they called Alex Hawthorn, who designed the software. He appears, warning that it sounds like connectivity issues related to the storm—not something he can fix.
Then he pressed a button and fixed it. Audio began syncing to video, and suddenly Gelb and Minora can hear each other clearer than ever before. It’s like a miracle.
“He clicked the ‘noise-jangler,’ and then everything changed,” said Minora. “Or something.”
(Hawthorn told the audio software to ignore connectivity issues and pass audio as fast as possible, regardless of possible internet drops, but “noise-jangler” is simpler.)
The two live shows were a revelation. Gelb and Minora are landing every joke and hitting every beat. In one scene, they even turn to stare at each other in perfect unison.
“And all they’re doing is breathing!” said McLaughlin in wonder. They were, in every sense, “synced in with each other.”
Blood Meal was “really scary,” she admitted. But the next show probably will be too. “We’re always skirting that breaking point.”