The house lights dim, and the crowd goes quiet as the stage lights illuminate a beautifully designed set. Except replace the sets with Zoom backgrounds and house lights with living room lamps.
Theaters have been closed since March and it is unclear when they will open up again. This, however, has not stopped theater students and faculty from creating and performing their shows.
The UP theater department put on a production last weekend of an original play called “Where is Home?”. The play was live-streamed on their Facebook page. The play portrays the impacts of housing inequity, as well as the history and impacts of segregation and discrimination in Portland.
Development of the play began in September. Due to campus being closed for COVID-19, the cast and crew had to innovate and create a live theater production for a platform they had never worked with before: Zoom.
“We created this play from scratch,” said Dr. Lezlie Cross, director of “Where is Home?”. “We started rehearsals at the end of September or something. And we had nothing, we had a bunch of research.”
To accommodate the unfamiliar platform, the play was written by the entire cast and crew, beginning with improvised scenes inspired by the research done by Cross and the production’s dramaturg, Madelyn Southard, a junior theater and history major.
“This play was super unique because we were writing the script as we went along with the process,” Southard said. “Whereas before I've worked with scripts that were already finished in more of a traditional sense. But with this show, we were having discussions as a cast and creative team and then we were writing scenes, based off of those discussions.”
Holding the performance digitally came out of necessity during the pandemic, but it was also a way to ensure that the public had access to the performances.
“We decided to do something over Zoom so that we could have a piece of work at the end of it that we could actually show to people,” Southard said. “We wanted to do something that kept the live components of theater, but obviously we couldn't do live, in-person theater so we chose to do it over Zoom.”
This proved to be a challenge for the cast and crew, as they had to adapt to a new medium.
“It was completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced,” said junior Hannah Harrison, who plays various characters in the production. “There's just so many other issues that you run into that you don't think about. When you turn off your camera and it says you're in this person's meeting room, and how do we avoid that because it looks ugly, and how do we make it seem like we're in the same space or, even though we're telling a story from the 60s, how do we make it translate to Zoom.”
Harrison and the rest of the ensemble had to adjust to a new style of acting as well: this time for the camera instead of on a stage.
“On the stage you’re less concerned about your face and how things are reading,” Harrison said. “But with this there isn't a whole stage that you could look at to find emotional cues and context, it's just you.”
The show is eight scenes long and each scene portrays different characters’ experiences of living in Portland. The scenes span various time periods, from the present day to the 1940s. In one scene, a young man searches for his father after the Vanport floods. In another, a family contends with being evicted from their home. What ties these scenes together is the idea of inequity in housing access.
The idea for the production came in the midst of the social upheaval surrounding equity and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and a desire to contribute to that conversation.
“Everything I kept reading kept coming back to housing and equity as the root of so many of the problems that we're facing as a country, in terms of racial inequity, and in terms of the huge houselessness problem here in Portland,” said Cross.
Before the show began, the actors recounted the history of the land on which the University of Portland sits, naming each of the previous owners and residents dating back thousands of years.
“Most theaters at this point in time do what we call a land acknowledgement,” said Cross. “We acknowledge the Multnomah and Cowlitz people, that we’re sitting on their land. So, I started thinking about housing and equity in terms of the lands that I sit on.”
As the actors introduced themselves and their respective roles, each stated where they are from, and the Native American tribal lands that their hometowns are located on.
After the show ended, the cast and crew held an hour-long discussion with the audience to unpack the topics that the show dealt with.
“The discussion sessions are an integral part of social justice theater, and it just felt really important to me that we didn't dredge up all these issues, and then leave people on their own, because we're never going to fix anything if we can't talk about it,” Cross said.
A recording of the performance is saved on the Theater Department’s Facebook page. There are plans for two more pieces of Zoom-based theater in the Spring 2021 semester.
Will Mulligan is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.