When the pandemic shut down live theatre in March of 2020, the ensemble members behind Chicago’s Stop Motion Plant were in the middle of producing a performance commissioned by Theatre Evolve. With the stages shut down and their play canceled, they found themselves having to pivot.
As the world adapted to a new reality, the group began meeting virtually to discuss the possibility of producing and performing live theatre in a way that would keep both the performers and the audience safe. Eventually, inspired by Macy’s dioramas, Amsterdam’s red light district workers, and local Chicago performers who put on “porch concerts” throughout the summer, the concept for Window Plays was born.
Presented as a “walking tour with theatrical displays,” and running Feb. 19-21, the performance was not a traditional narrative play, but rather a collection of six short individual vignettes performed within the storefronts of six separate businesses in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.
In order to secure each storefront venue, members of Stop Motion Plant went door to door to explain the concept to shop owners. After receiving what they described as overwhelming support, the group landed on performing out of the Neo-Futurist Theater, Rattleback Records, Enjoy, Women and Children First, *Play, and Raygun.
Each two- to five-minute play was acted out on a loop for an hour in its storefront window, allowing audience members to cycle between performances in a way that encouraged social distancing while making the experience accessible to a fairly large number of people.
The acts were shaped to be interactive experiences for the viewers, with performers attempting to rekindle the human connection so many have lost during the pandemic through their art, each taking a different approach.
Ensemble member Kevin Michael Wesson (he/him), who had not performed a live show since the shutdown started, drew on his puppetry background when determining the music and scale for his window play, Badvice. During his two minute performance, Wesson asked audience members increasingly personal questions through the phone while pressing his hand against theirs through a pane of glass sanitized after every act. After the interaction concluded, he bestowed attendees with an envelope with three pieces of advice—two good and one bad—as a parting gift.
Wesson said the whole experience had given him the feeling only live performance can create as well as the confidence that individuals still care for the artform, even after all this time.
“It’s definitely made me realize [live theatre] is still possible,” Wesson said. “When we approached owners in person, everybody was really eager to let us use their businesses. People always kind of badmouthed theatre back in the normal world, but now people have never wanted it more in their life.”
Other members of the troupe, like Perry Hunt (she/her), opted to simulate connection rather than create it, playing with illusions and sleight of hand within her set design. Hunt placed a cardboard cutout of herself herself behind a screen and illuminated the cutout from behind. She then Facetimed her audience, convincing them the person they were speaking to on the phone was the person whose silhouette they could see in the window, only to reveal she was never actually there.
“I learned about this thing that can happen when people do solo expeditions called ‘sensible presence affect,’ where people hallucinate that they’re with somebody else,” said Hunt when explaining what influences she drew on for the concept of her play, We are pretending. We are together. “It plays into how much we need other people and how our body wants to feel like there’s other people around us, and that felt to me like the experience of quarantine.”
Although the performances were a revival of live theatre, the actors still had to grapple with the challenges of a virtual format throughout the six months it took them to put together the piece.
“We couldn’t, for safety reasons, rehearse in the same room,” said ensemble member Jen Allman (she/her). “All our rehearsals were virtual. We all had to tech ourselves with whichever retail worker was present.”
Despite the challenges this format presented, some ensemble members found the innovations born from working around these challenges refreshing. Hunt, for instance, found that working within a more limited format allowed her the freedom to think about theatre in more abstract ways, with this experience being something that will influence her work beyond the pandemic.
“I think it’s given me permission and space to think about more innovative ways that I can produce art,” Hunt said. “This project has pushed me to be challenged and make challenging things. “
Allman, who has a background in traveling theatre, said the experience made her nostalgic for the adaptable nature of those performances.
“This has reminded me of how cool it can be to bring theatre into new locations, rather than brick and mortar theatre buildings,” said Allman. “I have learned through lockdown that performance can be anything, which I knew before, but now I really feel it, especially with this project.”
Camilla Forte (she/her) is a visual journalist and senior at Columbia College Chicago where she’s pursuing a BA in photojournalism. She is currently the director of photography at the Columbia Chronicle and the photo editor for Echo Magazine.
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