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New West actors embrace technology to film productions amid COVID-19

Century House Players have ramped up their production schedule

“We need to explore safer choices for our audience,” said Joy St. John, our producer. 

Always a hardy and creative group of thespians, New Westminster’s Century House Players were undeterred when they realized that live theatre productions by and for seniors had to be reinvented.

During the summer of 2020, she began researching various ideas. After consulting with members of Nanaimo’s Western Edge Theatre Company, Joy learned that in these unusual times, it was possible to create virtual performances using the Zoom platform.

She had been advised that it would be best if the actors were already computer literate.”

Joy, a founding member of SET (Seniors Embracing Technology) since 2019, was fully aware that the task ahead of her involved working with computer challenged individuals.

With grit and determination, she forged ahead.

In July 2020, Joy, along with her assistant Valerie Ross, gathered members together via Zoom and presented their ideas.

“We don’t want it simply to be Readers Theatre,” said Joy. “We want something closer to what we used to do on stage. We think this it.”

Since we were spending a lot of time hunkering down in our homes, we saw this as an opportunity to be creative and productive.

Joy discovered that her new position was now producer/IT person. For several months, Joy and Valerie found themselves zooming daily: “Can we do this? Can we do that?”

Using Century House’s internet, they met outside with eager members. There, they solved various problems and concerns people were having with their different devices. There was a never-ending chorus, “Can you see me now?” “Can you hear me now?” “Can you explain that again?” “I’m trying really hard to get this.”

It took a lot of learning and a lot of patience but soon everyone was ready to board the technology train. Rehearsals proved challenging.

Our director, Marilyn Remus, led the charge. She had a steep learning curve herself but successfully embraced this new format. Our first production was entitled Quarantine Humour.

Casting began for the skits, monologues, and short plays, primarily written by Marilyn herself. She assembled seven pieces with a running time of 45 minutes. The team was ready to rehearse.

We began by setting up home studios and backgrounds. Under Joy’s guidance, we learned how to adjust lighting and computer screens. As Joy said, “It matters what I see because your audience will see it too.”

Marilyn discovered new ways of directing.

“I’m usually a hands-on director but it wasn’t possible with everybody in separate homes,” she said. “There was one main advantage. Nobody was turning their backs on the audience because you’re always looking at the camera. Actors were confined to a tiny square but I discovered ways of manipulating costumes, props, gestures and facial expressions within those tiny squares.”

She also discovered the importance of eye connection. She reminded us that expressive eyes reveal character. How could we show our eyes when so many of us needed reading glasses? Once again, Joy’s technical skills solved the problem: “Just remove them and I’ll show you how to increase the font size substantially. It’s like magic.”

With our scripts mounted alongside the Zoom boxes, we discovered the joy of not having to memorize lines. But as Marilyn stated, “You’re not having to learn lines but still need to be familiar with them in order to do the juggling act of enabling movement for gestures and props while at the same time maintaining one hand on the mouse for reading and scrolling.”

Joy supervised the recordings of Quarantine Humour and then forwarded them to Curt Albertson, our film editor who, using special software, discovered he too, experienced a challenging learning process. The next step involved launching the finished productions on Century House’s own YouTube channel. This was aptly handled by Tim Hicks, another skilled member of the technical team.

We were now becoming more confident in our technical skills and produced a hilarious comedy entitled “What’s on TV?” It brought lots of much-needed laughter. Even though we were in isolation, we were enjoying the results of our creative connections.

In November, with new restrictions in place and the prospect of a lonely and gloomy Christmas looming, Joy further stated, “We opened it up to include a variety of Christmas stories so that Century House members could have a piece of Christmas sharing it with people they knew.”

Our accomplishments were well received. Century House staff and members complimented us. As Joy said, “In these challenging times we kept a lot of people happy, not just the actors, but other Century House members as well.”

These days, riding the technology train is a great way to travel.