Northern Stage, the White River Equity professional company, is at the forefront of theaters, finding ways to practice art during this COVID-19 pandemic. Tonight, Stephanie Everett’s “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” will open before a live audience, the first at a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theater since the pandemic began, at the Barrette Center for the Arts. But that’s not all.
Greg Keller’s timely and poignant thriller about race relations “Dutch Masters,” went online Wednesday, continuing through Oct. 24, in a streamed staging that required a complex process in order to meet COVID safety requirements. Rather than Zoomed actors, the result is a fully staged play online, while most theaters are using archival performances. And that can deliver its power.
“I love to think that this play is going to make people think about their lives,” explained Rachel H. Dickson who is directing.
“Dutch Masters” is a continuation of Northern Stage’s support of Black Lives Matter and guiding mission of social justice.
“I chose the play because Vermont being a predominantly White area, certain plays will resonate in different ways in a region like this,” Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s producing artistic director, said.
“I think ‘Dutch Masters’ reveals racism in people do not mean to be racist. Our community has been talking a lot about white fragility — and fragility stops you from seeing. And this play helps you see. It’s very human,” Dunne said.
“Dutch Masters” follows two young men — one white, one Black — who meet on the uptown D train on a summer day in New York City in 1992. What circumstances bring them together and where will the day take them? In a slow, suspenseful drip, the purpose behind this not-so-chance encounter is revealed. This thrilling tale examines race, class and responsibility in a world wracked with divisions.
“This play is a reflection of the complexity of the two individual people in all of their human parallels to all people, and a reflection of our larger society’s stereotypes, opportunities for joy that are missed,” Dickson said. “It works because by the end of the play, we can identify with the journey they’re on — and, for a while, you don’t know what journey they’re on.”
The play, however, was written in 2018, before the pandemic, and not for Zoom. There are two characters and they need to interact closely. And thus the complications began.
“We made a big decision to bring the actors here, and we got some pushbacks from agents, even in discussing this,” Dunne said. “I knew, having watched so many Zoom plays and created some of my own, you cannot get pace. There is no pace for arcs to be seen on Zoom because there is a delay — so actors cannot respond to each other.”
The production work began with the two actors in their homes, one in Maryland, one in New York, Dickson in Houston, and the two assistant stage managers in Vermont and Florida.
“So we were all on Zoom for two or three days,” Dickson said. “We did a lot of ‘table work’ where we talked about the play, the structure, how the play informed our current world. We learned lines over Zoom, and with its time lags, tried to understand the interpretations.”
Blocking (placement and movement) with the actors at home was begun via Zoom as well.
“They would use two devices, one to talk to me, and the other one would be the actor,” Dickson. “They put the device with the actor on Zoom up on the stage so they could see where the other person was moving.”
And then the two actors came to Vermont and were quarantined in separate spaces — still working on Zoom. And then rehearsals began on stage and, finally, the recording.
“Everybody who could possibly come into the room was tested for COVID,” Dickson said. “They stayed 6 feet apart for the whole process, for filming and everything. They could be inside (each other’s) 6-foot bubble for 10 seconds or less. So they were able to cross paths, but there was no touching the same items.
“Instead, they would pause and the other would handle a duplicate item,” Dickson said.
“When I look at it, I’m so proud of it because it’s theatrical,” Dunne said. “We were not trying to make a movie. The bones of the theater are showing — and I think that that’s right.”
For Dickson, “The theater is still alive and valuable. I want people to take away breaths that they got from watching the theater experience. I hope they could feel those breaths and be communal with the artists. We have missed that over these 7, 8 months.”
As to the takeaway from the play, “We have a responsibility to each other,” Dickson said. We have responsibility to every other we come in contact with.”