MOORHEAD — When the coronavirus outbreak led to the disruption of daily lives, many arts groups had to rethink programming in a time of social distancing. For Theatre B, that meant thinking of a way to stage plays without a physical audience.
In the search for a solution, the troupe didn’t just go back to the drawing board, it’s going back to comic books.
For the second week, the organization’s new series of streaming productions, "B at Home," will include a dramatic reading of a comic book. Viewers can go to Theatre B's Facebook page (facebook.com/TheatreBFargo) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11, to watch.
“It’s a bit of an experiment,” says troupe member Tim Larson, who first pitched the idea. “My hope is that it’s a successful one... We can’t produce a set, so how do we give a traditional theater experience? For me, comic books do that.”
It’s hard to judge what a success is for a theater company producing a work from home through Zoom online, but with over 700 views of Theatre B’s reading of the first "X-Men" comic and the enthusiastic comments that followed, it was good enough for a second go around.
This Saturday, actors will read tales from the creepy comic “Adventures Into the Unknown No. 1” from 1948.
“There are lots of comics from the same time period that are like radio dramas,” Larson said.
The cast is learning to embrace the new online Zoom stage, says David Wintersteen, the troupe’s co-founder who played Professor X in last week’s show and will direct this Saturday’s reading.
“As actors, we’re learning to handle the camera frame, where our gestures will be and where the frame is. For those accustomed to stage acting, it’s a new technique,” he says.
In the "X-Men" reading, Wintersteen cupped his mouth to give Professor’s X’s telepathic dialogue a more mysterious sound.
While the camera frame is limited in Zoom, some actors chose to fill it up with costuming and effects. Jacob Hartje wore a Magneto hoodie to play the villain and “flew” off the screen in one dramatic getaway.
“We will lean into that, from the waist up,” Wintersteen says of using costumes.
They learned a couple of lessons from the "X-Men" reading that they hope to work on for Saturday’s show.
“The importance of sound, we want to do more with sound effects,” Wintersteen says.
He adds that they are looking to add more technical crew for this week’s show, one to work on sound effects and another to progress through the comic panels shown on the screen to sync up with the actors.
The shows are free, though in her introduction, Carrie Wintersteen, Theatre B's co-founder and executive director, asked viewers to become supporters of the theater.
So, without being able to count receipts, how will the troupe tell if the show is a success?
“I would see it as a success if we can reach a group we normally don’t reach,” Larson says, referring to people that may go to see comic adaptations in a movie theater, but never step into a playhouse. “If we can get people like that to dip a toe into the arts, we’d be excited."
“There might be people who have never heard of us, but now can check out this wacky group on the Plains,” says Carrie Wintersteen.
She also says success will be gauged by the actors.
“Was it satisfying as an artist? Did you learn something? Was it challenging?” she says. “So far, the energy from members to me feels like a success.”