By Mickey Blaine
“Lights, camera, action!” has taken on an entirely different meaning during what I refer to as the Coviddle Ages. (Before the Renaissance began in the 15th Century, there were the Middle Ages. I can only optimistically hope that we will experience our own Renaissance following the bleak time period we currently inhabit.)
But back to the age-old adage. The lights of today are LED ring lights used to enhance our images on Zoom and prevent the flattening effect (both physically and emotionally) of the ubiquitous Zoom meeting. The camera is that ever-present pinhole at the top of our laptops that we have accepted as a constant intruder. And the action is the social distancing steps we take every day to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of ourselves and those we care about. So how, as a teacher of theater and film, am I supposed to bring the excitement that used to come with the urgent, adrenaline-inducing fever evoked by the “lights, camera, action!” directive to a group of students on the other side of a spotty internet connection, who often choose to have their cameras off so they can cuddle under the safety of their infection-free blankets? I’m not. I can’t. It’s physically, emotionally, and spiritually impossible. No improv game can stop the spread. No silly video can save our economy. Perhaps, however, we can make change.
Yes, the Coviddle Ages is a bleak time, but it’s also a time for reflection, analysis, and preparation. Being stuck at home gives us all the opportunity to practice each of these, and I believe it is through these steps (and a vaccine) that we will move into the next Renaissance. Realizing that any sort of attempt at pulling off a real performance through Zoom would fail miserably, I instead chose to present readings of seminal plays focusing on systemic racism, police brutality, homophobia, and hate crimes. A reading is a relaxed presentation of a play that feels more suited to a Zoom screen. Instead of people “acting” in their living rooms in front of a webcam, while the viewer tunes-in from their kitchen, waiting for the dough to rise on the 717th loaf of homemade bread they’ve made since March 13th, 2020, viewers log on to watch a person sharing a story through Zoom, speaking directly to them, and they’re able to tune in or out as much as they like—just as they’ve been doing in every Zoom class, meeting, webinar, or happy hour for the past nine months. It’s how we’ve grown accustomed to receiving information and connecting to others.
Left to right: poster for Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992; Mickey Blaine on Zoom during a reading; poster for The Laramie Project
Vistamar has presented readings of two plays featuring students, faculty, and staff members. The first was Anna Deavere-Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992, which dealt with the racial tensions and history of police violence in Los Angeles that led to the civil unrest of 1992 after the beating of Rodney King. The second was The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, which focused on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, and the resulting discussion of hate crimes in America. Both of these readings provided opportunities for the students and educators involved to talk about the current problems of racism and hate in America today. They also gave viewers a chance to reflect on our history and current state of affairs. Vistamar School will also be holding community roundtable discussions for students and parents to discuss the issues presented in these plays as part of our ongoing desire to learn together as we explore our essential question for the year, “How does a diverse community become a just community?”
These types of questions, and this type of reflection, are what is needed to prepare for our Renaissance. We may not be performing at our peak levels right now, but just like a dancer training for the Joffrey Ballet, an athlete training for the NBA, or a musician training for Carnegie Hall, we are sharpening our tongues in order to tell the stories that must be told—stories that acknowledge the wrongs of our past and our present, and stories that inspire a more enlightened future. So, until our stage lights are turned back on, the cameras are once again rolling in our film class, and our actions are taken together, we will be here (in our own homes), researching, memorizing, blocking, and preparing to bring life, beauty, and knowledge back to the stage and screen as we move out of the Coviddle Ages and into the Great Renaissance of 2021.
Mickey Blaine is the theater director and drama teacher at Vistamar School. He is shown at left in a screen capture from his theater students’ reading of Twilight in September of 2020.