Mina Morita has been the artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater for five years. Earlier this year, she began working with UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) to bring Dustin Chinn’s play “Snowflakes, or Rare White People” to the stage.
As was the case for many working in and around Berkeley, everything changed March 9, when the chancellor’s office announced the suspension of in-person classes at UC Berkeley due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Morita said, she had a sore throat and was directing rehearsals from home, an omen of procedures to come. Amid the new restrictions, Morita said the production opted to pivot sooner rather than later toward a new approach, and spent the following weekend researching possible courses of action.
“Right now, because of (the coronavirus), theater in person can’t happen,” Morita said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “For many of us artists, we have turned to other means, whether it’s streaming on Instagram, podcasts — there’s audio plays, radio plays, any number of possible ways to celebrate narrative.”
One such format is an audio play, which Morita distinguished from a radio play by noting its recorded nature. Morita pointed out potential issues with running a live show over Zoom or similar live video streaming services, citing unreliable wifi, lighting and audio quality, as well as difficulties in staging and physicality. She also mentioned the difficulty inherent in trying to convey running or fighting over isolated video screens, and said the production cast and crew resolved to adapt “Snowflakes” into an audio play.
Part of this adaptation required overhauls and changes to the overall design of the show, which had once been modeled as a visually lively show, according to Morita. Set design turned into the design of a model set that could be photographed. Costume design became photoshopped renderings of costume concepts with actors’ faces superimposed on top of them. Light design morphed into an image editing process. The design, originally intended for the stage, was destined for a series of slides to be played as the audio play progressed.
Elton Bradman, the play’s sound designer, saw the greatest change in his role, as the audio became the core aspect of the performance. Morita described the process of recording audio as a patchwork of files from each of the actors, who would record takes amid rehearsals with scene partners before sending them to Bradman to be added to the collective final product.
These rehearsals, Morita said, were conducted over a Zoom call in which other cast members would act as a stand-in for the live audience that would never be. Morita spoke on the difficulty of comedic timing without the instinctive adjustments comedians make during a live show, in front of a live audience.
“The other thing is, in theater, you have physical comedy, so how do you express physical comedy in your voice?” Morita asked, bringing up another issue the production faced. “We kind of had to have people standing all the time and moving, because your body is a vehicle of breath which causes sound to change.” She said this while bobbing her shoulders back-and-forth in demonstration, and noted that the actual language of the play went largely unchanged, even if its presentation didn’t.
Morita further noted other changes in speaking tones, saying that while the theater venue usually emphasizes projection, clarity and articulation, the audio format, though different, allowed for real whispers and a variety of volumes not usually possible on a live stage. She also noted additional benefits of the format.
“There’s something about the audio format,” Morita said. “A way to unleash the imagination, whether through inspiration or deepened meaning or deepened intention … even while you’re doing the laundry, you can still be listening and having this concurrent experience. For better or for worse, we’ve been in a time of multitasking.”
The director also talked about the current climate in other ways, discussing the way in which the play tackles current systemic issues — such as what Morita described as “a capitalistic mentality” and issues in the medical field — and how they seem to be rearing their heads amid the coronavirus crisis. Morita expressed concerns over how such issues will affect the future state of the stage, saying that theater is “a field that has defined success as growth.”
Morita foresees large changes for the theater industry in the wake of the current crisis. “I think there’s going to be a bifurcation in the field between those that will seek to transform it and those that will lean into a mindset of scarcity, in which gatekeeping and resource hoarding is going to increase,” Morita said. She also discussed the massive blow the theater industry has faced, and pointed out that artists and staff are the groups that have been hit hardest.
Despite her self-described pessimism, Morita described a strong future for theater.
“I think it’s an embryonic time for a creative spirit to exist,” Morita said. “I think it’s ultimately an opportunity that we must take to reimagine and transform the theater field — and everything, actually.”