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Anyone longing for a live theater experience, or the closet you can access in these COVID times, will want to check out Theater for One: Here We Are, offering a digital connection that brings an audience member and an actor together for an intimate virtual performance. .

Theater for One was established in 2010 by Christine Jones (best known as a Tony Award-winning set designer for shows including American Idiot and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and was originally housed in a theater cabin mobile and performed to New York audiences. the spaces. People lined up outside the booth and waited their turn for a one-on-one experience.

Court Theater had been thinking about the possibilities of producing Theater for One even before the pandemic shut down live productions.

We liked the look of public art and the fact that it could exist outside of our physical theater space, says Court Executive Director Angel Ysaguirre. We reached out to people there about six months before the shutdown and those discussions continued when they later decided to try a digital platform.

As in previous iterations, Jones enlisted eight playwrights to write short plays (5-10 minutes). But now having to factor in online access, Marc Downie, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Media Lab, has come on board to build a new digital platform, a teleprompter-like device that allows actors to look directly at the middle of the screen. and maintain eye contact with the audience member, which you can’t really do on Zoom. (Unlike other online theater offers, here the actor and the audience can see each other.)

The digital booth actually mimics this whole process, from the experience of standing in line together (here in an anonymous chat room) to walking into the booth and being there with the actor, and then talking about what you’re coming from. to see, explains Ysaguirre.

Actress Elizabeth Laidlaw poses for a photo at Welles Park in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Wednesday morning February 10, 2021. Laidlaw stars in Before America Was America, which is part of the Theater for One: Here We Are digital theatrical experience.

Actress Elizabeth Laidlaw stars in Before America Was America, which is part of the Theater for One: Here We Are digital theatrical experience.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

In honor of the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States, the plays in the virtual edition were written and conducted by black, native and colored women; the actors are all black, native and colored.

The plays, which focus on the current political moment, the pandemic, and the racial justice movement, are Thanks for coming. Take care of yourself. by Stacey Rose; What are the elements I must remember by Lynn Nottage; Fight against the pandemic by Carmelita Tropicana; We are here from Nikkole Salter; Thank you letter from Jaclyn Backhaus; Before America Was America by DeLanna Studi; Whiter Negotiations by Lydia R. Diamond; and vote! (the black album) by Regina Taylor.

During each free 90-minute session, four actors will perform their play up to 15 times. You can sign up to experience it at a particular time slot, but you can’t sign up for a specific game; it is the luck of the draw. However, you can register at more than one location in order to view multiple games.

The actors performing from their homes were given a sophisticated tech kit including a laptop, iPad and camera, as well as instructions on the complex system from the Court’s production team.

The unique setup also requires commitment from the audience member. No checking your phone, snacking on crisps or talking to the dog. The live experience comes down to its very essence: the connection between the performer and the audience.

Elizabeth Laidlaw plays Before America Was America, an autobiographical piece by Studis about her grandmother and how she learned what the right to vote means in the context of being a Cherokee person.

Because living in the midst of last year’s pandemic allowed for little interaction with people except perhaps family and close friends, Laidlaw thinks it’s a good time to connect with someone. one from outside that circle.

I think spending time with someone you’ve never met before can lead to a meaningful exchange, which I think will be really good for the soul and nurture in a way that I don’t think will. we’ve had all year, Laidlaw said, adding that she did. be prepared for surprises. Some people will be very calm but others will answer me. I have to be ready for this to be more of a conversation.

Chris Anthony, who directs the play and has a long history of working with community-engaged theater, says the actors in the productions more than live up to the one-on-one theatrical experience.

The actors here are trained to support a scene and it really requires an audience member to step into your scene, Anthony says. So each of these pieces is an improvisation on some level because it’s always going to change depending on who you’re talking to.

Like all virtual theaters of the past year, Theater for One is a stopgap to keep people connected to live theater until everyone can return to the play together.

I think people are really missing the in-person experience right now, Ysaguirre says. These microplays provide a unique opportunity for individual connection at a time when the need for new stories is more urgent than ever to make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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