Scott Klavan: Journey Into Zoom
There hasn’t been live indoor theatre in New York City since March. Many theatre-related jobs have melted away, temporarily or permanently, from actors and directors and playwrights, to costume and lighting designers, stage managers, from waiting tables, teaching artists, to voice and audition coaches. Many businesses benefiting from a connection to the institution of New York theatre are suffering or closed: restaurants, rehearsal and dance studios, photographers, caterers, and more. Large amounts of young people who moved to NYC for the express purpose of making a life in the theatre have gone back home. Remaining theatre veterans of all kinds have had to scuffle to find ways to survive financially, and as important, keep creating. With Broadway not slated to return until June of 2021 at the earliest, with small theatres suing the city to allow them to reopen before the bigger venues, the artist asks him/herself: What to do?
Zoom. Most of you know the virtual video/audio app and use it, love or hate it, or neutrally tolerate it, as a tool to remotely reach your relatives, job, etc. But here in New York—and in areas around the country—Zoom has become an integral means of putting stage pieces in front of people, to submit as a calling card for theatres, share with friends and fellow artists, live or taped, rehearsed or read cold. For the past six months, I’ve been immersed in the nascent Zoom theatre world, and while initially resistant, and still less than an expert, have been learning more about it, utilizing it with more efficiency, trying to embrace it. In this new practice, I am somewhat representative of people using previously unknown or dormant resources to keep going in NYC arts. Yet, it has been, in many ways, a solitary trip. So, here’s a personal history and progress report on my attempts at mastering a new creative form that can be useful, depressing, emboldening, frustrating, and exciting: Zoom theatre.
The first Zoom theatre piece I worked on was a 70-minute long one-act by a Broadway producer whom I had worked with several times in the past, developing plays he had written himself. I would help with revisions of numerous drafts of a script, cast actors, and rehearse and direct a closed-door reading just for us. After final revisions, we would move to a public staged reading of the piece in new-play festivals; then, try to interest a theatre in financing a full production. This is a fairly common activity in New York, and for me, a paying job that used my skills as a dramaturge and director to good effect. The playwright/producer and I had worked the same pattern on this new piece, his best yet, about a wealthy older man and a younger mistress dealing with how the differences in age and status distort their genuine intimate feelings towards each other. After development and in-house reading, we were readying to present it in front of an audience.
The shut-down blew away that pattern, of course. Through April-May, spottily employed, I was forced to learn the basics of Zoom for the Drama classes I teach for older adults, a number of which luckily continued on-line. Dragged into this new practice, I gained rudimentary knowledge of the program, could host a meeting, etc. But I had not recorded anything on Zoom, nor had I edited any of the tapes. In fact, except for the 8mm movies that my late father, a radio performer with first-rate tech skills, taught us to splice and cut when we were kids on Long Island, I had not shot or edited any video or film. My focus had been acting, then writing, and now, directing; mostly, on stage. I’ve always been much more interested in the human, emotional, inner, even metaphysical aspect of art, rather than the machine. But, like others in theatre here today, I was determined to adapt, keep doing something, to use the time at home in a creative and positive way. So I approached the playwright/producer and offered to direct a reading of his play on Zoom, tape, and edit it. He agreed.
In earlier days, I had my adult students do a live presentation of scenes and monologues as a final project for the end of their “semester” of classes. Since the classes were now on-line, I decided to tape their performances and edit them. This would kill two birds with one stone: giving the students a gift of their own recorded performances, using the pieces as a way for me to learn and practice a new skill. Mac computers come with the iMovie app, which is widely heralded as a good beginner’s film editing program. Unfortunately, I have a PC and would have to pay for a Windows film program. I researched and bought one; not too expensive. I started, using the trial-and-error method, completely botching, even accidentally deleting, then restoring and improving tapes of the class scenes.
There was a certain freedom in teaching myself something, alone. I was in an undefined state of exploration. Something usually associated with youth, I was going through it later in life. No one was watching; that and the calamity of the virus, the thousands of deaths in the NYC area at that time, created a “what the hell” mentality. Really, it could all end tomorrow. Simultaneously, life continued and there was a need to figure it out so I could live and work in this new format and not go broke. One of my strengths has always been editing and developing written material; for what it’s worth, I’ve worked in this capacity on the highest levels of show business; and worked as an actor for thirty years, and more lately directed actors; I’ve become proficient at that. But this was something I had always seen other people do, the friends from early days who went to grad film school, friends I sometimes envied for breaking into a more modern, progressive side of the business, rather than remaining with the ancient form of theatre, which, while great on many levels, is basically stuck in time. The opposites, freedom and need, propelled me forward, and the humility I felt too: I thought: I probably don’t have time left on earth to become great at this; I might as well get as good as I can, and figure out a way to mix video tech with my theatre-related skills, and see what comes of it.
I got adept enough at the Windows editing program to realize it wasn’t that strong a system. Cutting recorded video, essentially splicing the frames, squares of images, with a computer mouse the way we did it hands-on with 8mm (fusing the past to the present and future), you need to see the shots clearly; the boxes of the Windows program were small; it was difficult to blow up the pictures to make easy, authoritative cuts. Back on-line, I bought another, costlier program, Filmora 9, which had brighter, larger, more workable images. I then continued to cut and learned how to do elementary fade ins and outs on the student scenes, and ultimately put titles on the front and back end. I found the titling process, which uses what is basically PowerPoint, cumbersome and annoying. But when I was finally able to get the opening titles to play smoothly, get the scene to fade in and run through to its conclusion, finishing with a fade out, I felt genuine pride in my evolution.
I did have an understanding that if you have two people in the same unmoving shot and you cut into that shot, there’s going to be a “jump cut,” which can look pretty bad and amateurish. I knew that since my adult students—and later, the professional actors in my Zoom theatre pieces—were going to be in a static Zoom shot and angle throughout, this was going to be inevitable. I was more than a little bothered and embarrassed by these jumps; it highlighted my novice status. I had the inchoate thought that I could somehow incorporate this flaw into the process, to make it part and parcel of my creative mind-set on the project; I wasn’t sure how yet. In any case, I had to face my lack of background in video/film production, inefficiency in comparison to my old film school grad pals, and if not like it, then forgive myself, and keep going. After all, I wasn’t making a video or a TV show or a movie, but something in-between: Zoom theatre was a cross, a hybrid between several art forms, something new and intriguing, or vague and unsatisfying, depending on your point of view. The rules, the standards, the criteria for what made something good, were not set.
After finishing editing the class scenes and sending them to the students, I arranged to shoot the producer/playwright’s piece. This was still in the early days of the NYC pandemic and actors were also reeling, fumblingly transforming their living spaces into makeshift studios, buying Ring Lights, Green Screens, upgrading phone cameras, wi-fi connections and computer equipment. For our play, the older actor had to get advice from his grown son about his in-and-out computer/Zoom connection, switching rooms in his upstate house to avoid regular screen freezing while the younger actress took it in stride in her uptown Manhattan apartment.
We rehearsed for one day, reading the play, arranging for the actors to put their script docs on their own split computer screen, so their face and gaze were forward—no hard copies in hand driving eyes down—and rehearsing basic entrances and exits by turning their cameras on and off. They both had simple home backgrounds, blank walls; this was before Virtual Backgrounds became ubiquitous on Zoom shows. Before we shot, I had a moment of hope and fear: maybe we could run through it without errors, without stopping, and I could use that take without having to edit it. But that idea was quickly shot down by the usual stumbles actors make during a reading, exacerbated by the new technology we were all learning. Editing would be necessary.
When you stop a Zoom recording, you create a whole new file, all or parts of which has to be connected to the new file you create when you restart. While we did stop at points, still bent on self-protection, I tried to keep the camera rolling as much as possible even during flubs; the fewer files, the less complicated the cutting. With me reading the play’s stage directions “off-stage,” we completed the shoot. Afterwards, relieved, I couldn’t help thinking: what was that, what are we doing? The actors did and did not seem like they were using scripts; was it a reading, or a performance? And: are we cheating? Doesn’t it go against the exhilarating death-defying in-the-moment nature of live theatre to preserve the performance on tape, cut out the worst moments and keep the best? It was an approximation, familiar and foreign, spontaneous yet controlled, live and…un-live.
The conflict between taped and live Zoom shows is ever-present in the current theatre environment. While I don’t have reliable statistics—there probably are none—at least in the first part of the shut-down, many Zoom play readings were done live, or originally presented live, then the recordings kept on a stream for a short period of time; then, they vanished. This was to avoid having the play out there indefinitely, killing any future for the piece as a “real” play down the road, after the virus is gone. If you can see it on-line, probably for free, why pay to see it in a theatre later? One-time live Zoom readings done by struggling institutional theatres can be presented with an asked-for donation, as a way to keep the place in the public mind, and give it some small amount of dough. When pieces are read by individuals or groups of artists independently, they will sometimes ask for donations, as well, but, more often, there is no charge. More and more theatres around the world are shooting performances on an actual stage with video cams, in an empty or barely attended theatre, and then streaming it for weeks, selling normally-priced tickets for the show, which can be live or recorded. So, what is that? It’s not TV, theatre, or even Zoom, which is the focus here. But it is likely the way of the immediate future. All of this taping/Zooming/streaming has caused confusion and turmoil for the performing unions. Currently, SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity are embroiled in an increasingly bitter argument about who has the jurisdiction over these streams.
As I cut the piece, in a few instances, I was able to take a different, better take and slot it into the longer “master(ish)” take of the whole thing. On tape, keeping mistakes just made no sense. It did look better now, but this caused jump-cuts; faltering, I told myself: actors screw up in live readings, there are stops and starts, why isn’t this just a mechanized version of that? The rationalization convinced me and I finished the piece, adding titles at the beginning and end. It wasn’t fancy, but it was workable. You got the relationships of the characters, the value of the play, its superior and problematic aspects, from this Zoom tape, which after all, is the purpose of any play reading. The actors were excellent; the playwright/producer liked the work, signing off on it. I was participating in a living, fluctuating, change of definition, of an art form, of myself.
Feeling a burgeoning confidence, I moved on to Zoom-shooting a 45-minute one-act I had written, Enclave, about a middle-class couple that, after moving into a new, more affluent neighborhood, feels that strange threatening things are happening to them. It had been read in several NYC play festivals, and I thought its simplicity and small cast might work in this new format. My self-satisfaction as a Zoom artist was premature. The actors playing the couple had nagging, separate tech issues. The actress, a longtime theatre veteran, had done little Zoom performing; we struggled to get good audio at her Manhattan apartment; her screen freezing near-constant. The actor, who had worked on film and TV, was tech-savvy, but he and his family had moved upstate temporarily to escape Pandemic NYC, and his wi-fi was now haphazard; he would disappear inexplicably during our rehearsals. I had given myself an acting cameo in the piece—partly out of ego and a desire to keep acting, but, too, because I dreaded finding another actor who might have more tech problems to deal with. Scenes at the top and the end featured all three of us on the Zoom screen. The play took place in one locale; one of the actors’ computers could do a Green Screen, but not the other; I found that the processor on my own computer was not strong enough to support a Screen. The actors and I had to find home backgrounds that, at least, looked similar if not exact. We needed several more rehearsals to come to an acceptable solution and finally, haltingly, shot the piece over two days.
Viewing tape, I could see that my own background and sound were rotten; I had neglected to take my own participation as an actor seriously enough; I even needed a haircut! A week later, despondent, I decided we had to reshoot my two scenes. But the other actor had himself gotten a haircut and shaved an earlier stubble; new shots wouldn’t match. Needing to adjust, I reshot my scenes alone on-screen, with the actors doing their parts vocally off-screen. I heard myself saying, “We’ll fix it in Post,” something I’d heard many directors and editors say in film acting jobs over the years. I wasn’t actually sure I could fix it in Post, but it calmed everyone down, particularly me, the director; maybe this was the purpose of the phrase all along. Starting to edit, I realized there would have to be dozens of cuts. The actress’s sound was inconsistent, the actor sometimes dipped in and out of frame, my new solo scenes needed to be fitted into the atmosphere of the whole story. Matching different takes on this play was immensely frustrating, taking weeks. One moment, ruined by the actress’s faulty audio, required me to cut some lines completely from the play and refit the edited frames of the scene together. This was reasonably successful and, reassured by that action, I cut a longer section of the play that was a drag on the story. Slowly, I was getting acclimated to using tech to improve the overall dramatic value of a piece.
Finally, running the taped/edited play over and over and over, I acknowledged that it was rough-hewn; it wasn’t slick, at times the whole project seemed bumpy, off-balance. My reshot solo scenes with the off-screen fellow actors had a weird, disjointed quality. But, whether I knew it consciously or not while we were doing it, these were exactly the results I was looking for in the presentation of Enclave, which is something of an absurdist black comedy about the lack of surety, the indefiniteness of human beings’ experience with reality. The actors did a great job with their sense of spontaneity and unpredictability; something, paradoxically, that came from our working on it several times in earlier theatre festivals; their practiced repeated behavior yielded a freshness and naturalness that likely wouldn’t be there in a first-read. (They even added some great off-screen vocal work in my scenes; the actor used his own home table drawers to produce a startling final sound effect.) I saw that I had accidentally inserted a shot of my character after the end titles, kind of like an “outtake.” I kept it in; maybe because it was unplanned, it became my favorite moment of the tape. The mix of studied rehearsal and on-the-fly creativity, of rough mistakes and smooth competence, flawed humans and corrective machine, produced a piece that is, to me anyway, satisfying and absorbing in its imperfection.
But improvements were needed if I were to move forward in this new Zoom world. I was forced to punish my credit card for a new not-cheap computer that, with its upgraded (Green Screen enabling) processor, was described as well-suited for video editing—basically, a “gamer” computer that my 21-year-old son resented my buying, for- what? He wasn’t sure what I was doing, but he knew, since it didn’t produce much money, wasn’t important. (I had already bought for Zoom a Green Screen—and ill-fitting Screen Stand which I later returned—two tripods, two iPhone holders, a large table to elevate my computer, and later, a small attachable web cam, another refurbished iPhone with a better camera, and new office chair, clearing out or rearranging the furniture in the room I was using for work, requiring me to sift through and throw out thousands of financial and personal papers and other possessions over months.)
As the reader can imagine, the question of money looms large in this new shut-down existence. After researching the possibilities of making dough off Zoom theatre pieces—YouTube and other similarly sponsored video sites, ticket-selling platforms, various social media opportunities, comparing notes with several people doing the same thing—the result is pretty dry. Unless the work is produced/funded by an established theatre or patron or star of one kind or another, the independent freelance Zoom artist is getting by with small, sporadic gig checks; the work itself, whether short or full play, has yet to, and may never, generate steady income.
Undeterred, with a new computer set up, I prepared to use the Filmora app to shoot and edit a 20-minute play by Ellen Abrams, whose full-length piece Eleanor And Alice, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her provocateur cousin Alice Longworth, I had helped develop and directed at the Hyde Park, NY, Roosevelt Library and FDR House in Manhattan. Her new play, Bernie and Carlo Play Canasta, was about corrupt financier Bernie Madoff meeting long-dead dishonest investor Carlo Ponzi of Ponzi Scheme infamy, in jail. Billed as a “felonious fantasy,” it required a shared Virtual Background of a jail for the two actors playing Bernie and Carlo, and, maybe, I thought ambitiously, some sound effects. I found several clipart photos of jail cells and settings on-line and Ellen and I picked the somewhat surreal one we liked. We then met with the actors on Zoom and struggled with their separate Green Screens to make the background jail photo match, and look reasonably believable; if the Screens are absent, or set up incorrectly, the actors tend to disappear inside the photo. (Just as difficult, we had to accommodate the actors’ work and parenting schedules, more challenging since the shut-down. Our shoot time would be short.) Despite repeated tries, one actor couldn’t do the Screen, but we learned he had actual green wallpaper in a room in his apartment; that would do.
I wanted to break up the “acts” of the play with sound, to point up the escalation of the story, which takes place in Bernie’s mind as he seeks clarification of his character and ultimately, solace from the similarly immoral Carlo. I bought several discordant sounds of jail doors opening and closing on iTunes and used the functional, unfancy sound editing program Wavepad, which I had bought earlier for Voiceover work, to cut some of the sound files into each other, hoping to create a ghostly, subtly threatening sound that grows worse during the piece. Lapsing into uncertainty, I planned to play and record the sound during taping, rather than put it in during Post; I didn’t know how to do that yet. But during Zoom rehearsal, when I played the Mp3 sound effects files from my phone or off my computer, both produced bad echoing. Again, there was no escaping the Edit.
Shooting, while fast, was sharp, only interrupted by the arrival home of the five- year-old daughter of one of the actors. As criminal Carlo Ponzi sat in front of the prison cell pic, you could hear a little girl cheerfully giggling and gabbing; let’s just say we had to reshoot the moment. Yes, at times, parts of the actors’ bodies disappeared into the photo behind them; it couldn’t be helped. It was mostly Carlo, so we could explain it away as a result of the character being a spirit, a ghost; a forced justification, perhaps, but good enough to get me to the editing stage. There, I learned how to attach sound files to the movie—placing the sound on the “track” above the visuals. Implanting them was, again, mostly a variation on dragging, cutting, and pasting, as well as something like the “pinch” used when you open up the picture on your camera phone, to shorten or lengthen the sound cue. As I’d hoped, the odd grating sound and stifling background photo helped suggest a fog of impending doom for the character Bernie Madoff, the inexorable judgment of inner guilt that he is trying to deny. “They all wanted easy money!” Bernie says desperately to Ponzi, “So I gave them easy money!” Perhaps, the audience feels it, too, is implicated along with Madoff.
But the beginning and end of Bernie and Carlo Play Canasta had a couple of large jump-cuts, something that still rankles. I found that the better I was getting at editing, the more tricks—sound and titles, virtual backgrounds and fades—I was using, the less forgiving I was with my own amateurishness. I had reached some kind of border in my new skill and self-definition.
And that’s where I stand. At the precipice of going further into the Zoom virtual world, continuing to learn and recreate myself to get as close as I can to the friends who have done video/film on a regular, life-long basis, or young people born better at tech; pulling back, seeing the form’s and my limitations, content to wait for live theatre to reopen, or if that takes too long, just quit and retire; staying on the same path, making and offering unpolished but hopefully clear and affecting presentations of plays in a half-way format both compelling and disappointing.
To close, another long-ago memory: when I was young on Long Island, my twin brother and I would go to the movies on weekends, seeing whatever was the weekly picture. Smug smart-asses, we sat in the audience cracking each other up at the deficiencies of many of the films, whether it was fat toupeed old John Wayne in action, or cheap horror films with effects and make-up that were obviously fake. Movies and a culture in transition, before CGI and huge budget technology, when actors and filmmakers from the humanistic post-War period were hanging on, where literate screenplays with remnants of theatre vied with slick young machine-oriented late 20th- early-21st -century artists, just beginning. And yet, for all of the rough imperfect parts in those Saturday flicks, maybe because of them, we went back every week; there are still moments I remember from some of the films: flashes of unvarnished humor, sex, love, terror, joy, exaltation, that I couldn’t dismiss, or laugh away. When I look at my Zoom videos, things that I, with the help of colleagues, made during a terrible, changing time: I see a flash or two.
Below are links to two of my Zoom videos. They cost nothing to watch. They are, in ways earthly and invisible, Free.
Bernie & Carlo Play Canasta (20 minutes)
Written by Ellen Abrams
Directed, Edited and Produced by Scott Klavan
Featuring: Michael Jay Henry & Francis Mateo
ENCLAVE (45 minutes)
Written and Directed, Edited and Produced by Scott Klavan
Featuring: Wynne Anders & Michael Jay Henry; w/Scott Klavan
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theatre, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theatre Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theatre and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.