Featuring Radioactive Soup, Fairies, and a Cat Show
For anyone hoping to stretch their theatrical muscles during the pandemic, I suggest the following exercise:
- Improvise a skit
- With actors who aren’t in the same room as you
- In French
- On a Zoom call with 50 kids
- Most of whom don’t speak French
These are unusually specific limitations. But, as Chil Kong (Artistic Director of Adventure Theater) said at the DC Theatre Summit in January, narrow parameters produce innovative work. I saw this firsthand as a virtual French counselor at Lac du Bois this summer.
Lac du Bois, an immersion program in northern Minnesota, uses performance as a language teaching tool. Theater is present in the skits that introduce the day’s menu, in the gestures used to teach songs, and in the over-arching simulation of the program itself. But the most traditionally theatrical moment of the day is Plaisirs d’amour, a “soap opera” performed by counselors in nightly installments. Anticipated by TV-starved campers and attention-hungry staff alike, Plaisirs d’amour has satirized movies and books, featured unforgettable characters and ridiculous plot lines, and ended since time immemorial with its actors jumping fully clothed into Turtle River Lake. It’s a treasured part of the day at Lac du Bois, and this summer we were faced with adapting it to an online format.
Just as Kong predicted, narrow parameters spurred innovation for the team of writers and actors devising these virtual performances, which included my colleagues Vanessa, Zé, Marion, Benoît, Sebastien, Emmy, Eliénore, Issac, Edouard, Aurelie, Cécile, and Sido.
For the second and third episodes, I took advantage of the pre-recorded format to splice together a brilliantly improvised montage of the protagonist, Minou, training to enter the competition (Minou, it should be noted, was played by Zé, the same genius behind Dr. Ingrédients). For the final episode on Friday, campers entered their own pets, who danced to French music in their respective Zoom squares. Shockingly, Minou still topped the poll, with campers pointing out in the chat that he deserved the win due to his rigorous training regimen.
Minou (played by Zé) trains for the cat show.
Minou (Zé) and M. Moustache (Edouard) call a "human" guardian (Matilda and Sido).
I co-wrote the final week of Plaisirs d’amour with Zé and Marion. Zé suggested that we play with scale and perspective, which we wouldn’t be able to do during an in-person session. This reminded me of the work of my college professor Natsu Onoda Power, who uses live video feeds of puppets in her plays. These ideas snowballed into a storyline involving fairies played by real people and puppets drawn by Zé, resulting in a toy theater extravaganza which eventually incorporated fire, tomato sauce, and a model volcano.
I was so grateful to be making theater this summer, and I was energized by the many opportunities the virtual format provided. After months of mourning live performance, it felt good to make art with smart and creative people.
In the next few months, should things go according to plan (which they don’t tend to do these days) I’ll be directing virtual scenes for Joy Zimmerman’s directing class at Studio Acting Conservatory and directing a virtual performance of A Doll’s House for Silver Spring Stage. If you had asked me before this summer, I would have been highly skeptical of these plans. But I’m happy to conclude that, though many things are bad right now, virtual theater isn’t always one of them.
The Adventures of Cafeteria
Written by me, Zé, and Marion, Puppets drawn by Zé
Starring me, Benoît, Emmy, Eliénore, and Marion
Additional puppetry and camerawork by Sébastien
It’s September, and my time in Japan is almost over.