Saturday, January 23, 2021

Short & Sweet "In The Cloud"

MOT's successful experiment in virtual theater 

As the pandemic roars on, what are the performing arts to do? “We’re going to make art because that’s what we do,” said Director Catie O’Donnell during the first Zoirée (that is, Zoom-soirée) of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s "The Distance Commissions" series

This first commission by Matt Zembrowski is called In The Cloud: A Story in Five Songs. Zembrowski wrote the show just last month, and this in-the-moment creation allows for some seriously of-the-moment theater. His mini musical is set right now — in our isolating, anxious-making, loss-ridden time of pandemic. 

In The Cloud’s five songs follow a small family. In the cast: MOT alum Rae Pare as the grown daughter, Milwaukee native Marilyn White as the mother, and “local boy” (his words) Normal Moses as the father. Tremendously beloved in Milwaukee, Moses has been “yanked” (also his words) from retirement to lend this character a touching voice. 

While I don’t want to say too much, I will say there are echoes of all of us in Zembrowski’s story-songs. In the past year, we’ve likely either felt similar feelings (“when will it end?”) or encountered similar characters and attitudes. Though the story is, as Moses said during this first Zoirée, “not exactly happy,” we’re left with a reminder that “all we have is time, and no one knows how much.” Do with that what you will — literally.

What the brilliant Jill Anna Ponasik and her Milwaukee Opera Theatre team have chosen to do with their time is to find a way to keep creating. With "The Distance Commissions" Zoirées, the hope is to strike a balance, delivering the sense of community we’re all craving while avoiding the streaming of a full-length piece of theater. 

As Director Catie O’Donnell pointed out in the post-show discussion, not only is the content of In The Cloud a reflection of the moment we’re in, but so is the way this piece has been put together and shared. The format for MOT’s Zoirées goes like this: Start by logging into the intimate 18-person Zoom (a link is sent to your inbox beforehand to make it super easy). You’re then greeted by Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik, who tells you a bit about the show and introduces the key players. Yes, you get to bump virtual elbows with the actors, director, and playwright!

In The Cloud has been pre-recorded, so together the Zoirée attendees watch the 20-minute film. Short and sweet. It was filmed at the actors' homes using phone cameras, then edited together seamlessly — a testament to making-do in these tough times. After the show, the audience is invited to ask questions and share comments. Ponasik ends by asking what people miss most about live theater.

At least, that's how it went on night one. It’s possible some tweaks will be made over the course of In The Cloud’s six performances. One thing that I imagine will remain the same is MOT’s openness to both introverts and extroverts — that is, you can choose whether or not you turn your camera on and participate in the talk-back.

As one who prefers to be a wallflower in virtual hangouts, I can attest that there is zero pressure to go out of your comfort zone here. However, upon reflection, I would turn my camera on from the start next time — for the sense of community and as a tribute to the creatives who so bravely put themselves out there for us. Showing them the smiles on our faces and muted applause is the least we can do. 

To answer Ponasik’s question: What do I miss most about live theater? That sense of awe. I miss marveling at the talented actors, the production design, the mood-making lighting, the rush of movement, the glorious voices. And of course I miss the alive-ness. Not just seeing scripted (and unscripted) moments come and go, but also the physical coming together of a community of theater lovers. As one woman noted at last night’s Zoirée, I too miss being part of a crowd of applause.

Someday we’ll get back there. For now, take heart in works like Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s "The Distance Commissions." 

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