Diversity & Inclusion
Arts / COVID-19

How 4615 Theatre took programming virtual using games, phone calls and Zoom concerts

Created in the pandemic, the approaches introduced in the theatre company's 4615 Go productions could influence its work going forward.

A scene from 4615 Theatre's "Dark City." (Art by Sara Eskandari)

The vicissitudes of the pandemic have forced many theaters to shift direction and offer virtual productions in order to survive. An increasing number of offbeat theaters have embraced that change to generate new revenue sources and draw new audiences using technology.

4615 Theatre, based in Montgomery County, Maryland, and D.C., took a particularly distinctive approach to meet various business and creative needs with its virtual productions. The theatre has embarked this year on a low-tech program of productions called 4615 GO. These will likely serve as a springboard for future programs, and build on the theater’s site-specific shows in real-world environments, said Jordan Friend, 4615 Theatre’s founder.

Friend said the idea for the program “crystallized last fall due to frustration with the ongoing debates over what constituted ‘theatre’ at a time when in-person performance was unsafe.”

Initially, the theatre assessed the potential of developing virtual productions around archival footage, but quickly dismissed the idea as “too hollow” and unoriginal, Friend said. Instead, they explored various electronic tools, and assessed the specific capabilities they’d bring as theater artists to technology-based productions.

In essence, the resulting program operates on the belief that, “theatre is everywhere, and the theatrical spirit can be found in all things,” as Gregory Keng Strasser, the theatre’s producing director, explained. The theatre set out to develop productions that could reach new audiences, and enrich people’s perspectives on theater, Friend said.

From his perspective, 4615 GO was particularly well-suited to the theatre’s diverse audience, particularly its millennial and Gen X audiences. In fact, the program helped expand the theatre’s audience geographically to locations like California and London. Friend sees hybrid productions as a potential part of the theatre’s future programming.

After significant testing, the theatre launched 4615 GO in January with a “tabletop” experience, fusing role-playing games and theatre. It was run by Jon Jon Johnson, a professional “Dungeons and Dragons” game master.

“Johnson and local theatre artists integrated such popular tabletop games as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ with improvisation to create an ongoing story, drawing from past 4615 productions,” Friend said.

4615 GO shows new audiences how technology can still be intimate, and demonstrates that we don’t need to employ complicated technology to be effective in our virtual productions.

To ramp up its virtual productions, the theatre created a desktop TV studio using Open Broadcaster Software, which Friend said turned out to be a “godsend.”

From late January to February, the theatre remounted a previous production called “It’s For You,” using phone interaction.

“The one-hour long production allowed audience members to speak by phone one-on-one with Britt Willis, the production’s creator regarding both of their environments, feelings, poetry and other topics. In the process, the audience members and Willis also composed poetry together,” Friend said.

From Feb. 11 to March 7, the theater offered a story concert called “Old Soul,” featuring songs by Friend performed over Zoom with audiences of up to 20 people. The seriocomic story centered around Friend’s “quarterlife crisis from Hell,” merging musical theatre, stand-up comedy and other elements.

The next production is set to debut this week.

“Dark City, ‘an old school visual novel game experience’ that will debut April 23, was designed to merge technology with the intimacy and immediacy of theater,” said Friend.

As such, the game, which was written by Strasser, “utilizes elegant 2D animation, and finds the spirit of theatricality present in gaming,” Strasser said. He added that one of the side benefits of the game was offering employment opportunities for theatre artists during the pandemic.

“The game was inspired by the large-scale defrauding of Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund by a wealthy elite there, which ruined many lives,” said Strasser.

“It features two investigative journalists examining the death of a young woman and a larger conspiracy behind it engineered by an organization called AIO,” he said. “One of the journalists is the brother of the woman who died, and the other pursues an investigation of AIO on the hunch that the organization was behind the woman’s death.”

Each of the four episodes takes about 90 minutes to play, bringing together story and character development, as well as world building.

Purchased for an online download and played offline, Friend noted that it features “beautiful artwork.”

“It’s largely focused on storytelling, and has much simpler controls than a combat-based game,” Friend said.

Strasser added that 4615 Theatre is particularly focused on developing game-oriented productions that appeal to both the theatrical community and gamers.

With multiple virtual productions now performed, the theatre’s leaders have gained a few insights.

“Virtual work costs much less, and allows us to largely recoup expenses through sales alone, unlike in-person productions, which tend to require donations to cover a large part of the budget,” Friend said. Ultimately, 4615 GO “shows new audiences how technology can still be intimate, and demonstrates that we don’t need to employ complicated technology to be effective in our virtual productions,” he said.

Going forward, he sees potential in the use of immersive audio in theater, which would eschew the need to use video and animation in many situations. Friend said the theater might examine the potential use of  augmented reality in its productions, and especially how it might combine with in-person performances.

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