I’m a stickler for live performance. As a performer and an audience member. The energy. The “anything can happen” element. Strangers experiencing the same thing at the same time. There’s nothing like it.
Unless a global pandemic happens.
Many performing artists like myself haven’t had a place to do our thing live since this p-word started. Audiences have had nowhere to go to see us do our live thing. If I wanted live theatre to thrive, I had to create it. For the audience and myself.
When lockdown started here in New York City on March 13, 2020, I got anxious. So I got to work finding ways to continue to present theatre. Along with the rest of the world, I discovered this magical internet thingy called Zoom. I began doing adaptations of my stage shows on this useful communication platform, and suddenly my small NYC audience was the whole world. I was getting emails from strangers thanking me for taking them “away” for an hour. One of the shows has now been running for over a year. Online. Live. That’s longer than most in-person shows I’ve done.
Yet the muse was shouting, “Make more theatre!” But how?
As a kid, I was obsessed with the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. I loved the characters and the sci-fi elements, the makeup, the design. Over the odd, lonely summer of 2020, I started listening to podcasts about old movies and Planet of the Apes (yes, there are a few podcasts about the POTA franchise). This led me to remembering an old improvisation game I once created with Theatresports back in the ’90s called “Planet of the Grapes.” It involved speaking with grapes in your mouth without them falling out. It was ridiculous.
The name seemed to stay with me: When I worked in London for a couple of years, my flat was around the block from a wine store called Planet of the Grapes. Clearly this was a message! While listening to one of the POTA podcasts, I decided it was time to actually do something with that title.
I determined that the film could be adapted for the stage with grapes playing the apes and corks playing humans. Next thing I knew, I was building tiny stages and sets in my tiny apartment office in Chelsea. And I soon stumbled down a rabbit hole of the toy theatre movement of the Victorian era, a way for people to literally bring theatre into their homes. This is exactly what I would be doing—only now I get to say things like, “Reviving a decades-old theatre tradition on a digital platform.”
I unearthed Rod Serling’s screenplay drafts for the original Apes movie. I pored over the original novel. And I soon fell in love with the message. For Planet of the Apes isn’t just about an astronaut who lands on a strange planet ruled by speaking apes. It’s about religion vs. science. It’s about class. It’s about the treatment of animals and humans. And it’s about our future and how we can either build it or destroy it.
I’m sure none of those themes resonated with me when I was a kid watching the movie over and over on VHS. But something about this pandemic and the uncertainty of all of our futures made the film seem more immediate than ever.
So now I find myself performing a brand new live theatre show, recently called “the future of theatre” by one of the half dozen critics who wrote about it. My audiences are now around the globe, and I don’t have to leave my little NYC home. During a global pandemic.
And I feel strangely…alive.
“Planet of the Grapes” plays live on weekends at various times through June. More info at www.planetgrapeshow.com.
Peter Michael Marino is an NYC native who has worked extensively as a producer, director, developer, writer, teacher, and performer whose work has been seen on five continents.
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