What happens when you combine interactive live theater and the Internet? Heretick Theatre Lab is about to find out. Their theatrical experience, The Noir Series is a collection of short plays set to be staged in a 67-seat black box theater. The event will also be streamed live over the Internet for a paying audience.
“It has a touch of Playhouse 90 inspiration to it for sure,” says Jennifer Cotteleer, Artistic Director of Heretick Theatre Lab. “For me, the more direct link is what the National Theater of London is doing. That was the thing that, really when I experienced it myself sitting in a movie theater and watching one of their co-productions with the Donmar Warehouse… That is when it all clicked in my head. “
She continues. “The plays that are going to be performed… The assignment was noir. So what I did was I went to some writers and theater artists in Los Angeles that I really, really respect. And said, I would like to try this new form of theater, of presenting theater. And I would like you to do whatever you do best.”
The result is work from wide array of writers. Playwrights include Ed Brubaker, an award-winning comic book writer who specializes in noir and Stephen McFeely, a screenwriter whose work includes Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Filmmaker John Hindman, whose work has been featured at Sundance Film Festival, has also written a play. The Burglars of Hamm will create a piece for the event.
Cotteleer is very excited to include work from Nancy Keystone and the Critical Mass Performance Group. “The type of work they do… It’s very ensemble-based. They build their pieces from the ground up, through a lot of research and movement and sound. And it’s really some of the most gorgeous theater I’ve seen. And so I wanted her to do that. I wanted her to take the concept of noir and do something. And what they’ve come up with is shadows of light and smoke,” she says.
Los Angeles serves as a major inspiration for the event. While Cotteleer didn’t want to ignore the cameras, she did want to take advantage of the cinematic element, noir and films. “The cameras are going to be there to capture… fear,” she says.
The Audience at Home
Theaters have streamed performances over the web, sometimes with bland results. Sound snafus and dead air have plagued other productions. Cotteleer is well aware of the technical challenges.
“I have hired a camera crew… We’ve got a three-camera setup. We’ve got a switcher. We’ve got a technical director. We’ve got… These guys who (worked on) the X Games. They are good at capturing live stuff,” she says. “And there’s where we put the bulk of our budget. The rest of us are used to doing theater on a shoestring. So that part we could figure out.”
Creating effective sound in an echoey 67-seat black box theater is a challenge. “My goals are to make it look as good we can with HD cameras. And then the sound… I have hired a sound mixer and people will be wearing body mics. And it’s a small enough house that I think we can solve for both,” says Cotteleer.
“Because if people log in and can’t hear it and can’t see it, it’s dead,” she says.
To get the type of technical expertise she required, Cotteleer needed to work with the Screen Actors Guild/AFTRA. She explains, “Equity does not allow you to videotape any portion of a rehearsal or a performance. So that was a little roadblock. And I’m Equity. I’m both SAG actor and Equity. And it was really important to me that this be a union production. The writers are in the Writer’s Guild. Everybody is a SAG member. So what we’re doing, because we built this to be online… It turns out that there is a SAG/AFTRA new media contract… So we’re doing it under a SAG/AFTRA contract. Everyone in the production is… I would say the majority… are SAG members.”
The other challenge will be maintaining the interest of the home audience during set changes. To keep the production moving during scene changes, Robert Buscemi and Sofiya Alexandra will serve as emcees. Both comedians specialize in character-based humor. The two will interact with people at home, through the event’s chat room and Twitter feed.
Los Angeles Theater
Cotteleer says that Heretick is reminiscent of a theater company she helped start when she was in college at the University of Illinois. That theater company became Defiant Theatre Company in Chicago.
After graduating she moved to Los Angeles and promptly experienced an artistic culture shock. “Chicago is a theater town because that’s the only game in town. So theater companies exist in a different way than they do here (in Los Angeles). I don’t even think it’s a better way. It’s a different animal there. So moving here, it was just people went about it differently here. In Chicago, you’ll have theater companies that are have production designers and directors and lighting designers, all as part of the company. In Los Angeles, it’s far more actor-based. So you’ll have groups of actors who part of a dues-paying company. So the structure is different….”
Cotteleer started working commercially as an actor, and then started an event business. The business became successful, but she felt like she lost her priorities. “I wanted to take everything I learned from a business point of view, and marry it to everything I had learned starting a theater company all those years ago.
Streaming the live event would make it unique. “You know, this production would basically be an evening of one-acts. And I didn’t want that. I kept saying to everybody, “If a group of one acts falls in Los Angeles, does it make a sound? I don’t know if it does,” she says.
Cotteleer believes that theater in America is at a crossroads. People in Los Angeles are doing amazing work, yet there is little money for the arts and theater. “And the nonprofit structure… I don’t know if the center will hold there. So is there another way to expand the audience, and expand the revenue stream so that people can go around and do good work and support themselves? So that’s where Heretick Theatre Lab came. And where the name came because I thought, I’m going to be filming theater. I might as well call it what it is.”
The company is an LLC rather than a nonprofit. “I think the nonprofit structure for theater is a difficult one to maintain. And it puts people in a situation where they are constantly having to ask people for money and grants. And they are kind of beholden to other people…. I wanted to see if there was a way to build some other kind of revenue stream. I have actually financed this project…. This is our first one out of the gate. It is an investment in the same way you would invest in a restaurant or a business,” she says.
Cotteleer calls The Noir Series an experiment. Can a small theater company expand their audience beyond a black box? Can Heretick Theatre Company develop a way to introduce a worldwide audience to live theater through the Internet? Will this potential new revenue stream help support small theaters? Tune in November 7, 8 or 9th via the group’s website to find out.