By Eric Fraisher Hayes
As the reality of the pandemic began to dawn on me, I started to brainstorm ways to continue to bring the plays of Eugene O’Neill to our audiences. I knew performing in front of patrons was very unlikely and most of my virtual theatre or “Zoom theatre” experiences have not been satisfying. I longed for the spark created when actors actually share a stage. I began to visualize videotaping O’Neill’s plays in a safe and responsible manner.
O’Neill’s drafty open-air Old Barn played a key role in my planning. Besides offering the magic of Tao House, the Old Barn was a covered yet safe space to work. Additionally, the remnants of the set from last fall’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night gave us a theatrical backdrop for our stories. I am no stranger to editing O’Neill’s plays, but this time I needed to edit the plays so actors could maintain a safe social distance while also allowing the characters and their stories to be represented truthfully. As directors and actors, we need to justify character actions on stage if we are going to tell a story honestly and touch on universal human truths. I told the ensemble of nine actors that I had removed all “fighting, kissing, and sitting” in the three scripts while still pursuing the spirit of O’Neill’s work. We were going to keep our distance, keep it moving, and still build dramatic tension.
This meant that, as a director, I not only had to block out the movements of the play, as I normally would, but I had to justify the additional space between actors and create emotionally connected moments while keeping actors 6 feet apart. The actors adapted quickly to this strategy. A key ingredient to the magic of live theatre comes from the dynamic energy exchanged when actors look into each other’s eyes and hear each other speak from the heart. I wanted these plays, despite being recorded, to capture that magic.
Over a two-week period in late July and early August, we rehearsed and then, page by page, videotaped our three early O’Neill plays: The Web, Abortion, and Recklessness. As a director, and now cameraman, I tried to vary the shots to add visual variety. I told the actors we are creating recorded stage performances, not a film. I wanted them to concentrate on each other and forget the camera.
We completed the crucial step of coming together to create, and now it is my responsibility to see that all the footage recorded in the Old Barn is edited and shaped into compelling theatre. All three plays touch on the limitations placed on women in the early 20th century—issues of class, economic power (who has it and who does not), access to medical care, the right to an abortion, and police bias. O’Neill wrote these plays more than 100 years ago, but he chose challenging subjects that our society still struggles with today. We look forward to sharing these stories with our audiences this fall.
For weekly rolling premieres of the three plays beginning October 3, please check back here, and sign up to get our emailings!
The Foundation would appreciate your donations to cover hiring our nine actors and other production-related expenses.