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Studio Players virtual
COURTESY STUDIO PLAYERS Malcolm (Richard Douglass, top right) slays a dragon in “Superhero Princess Tales.”

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

The little boxes in which the actors appear seem interactive, in “Superhero Princess Tale,” the children’s show at Studio Players that opens online tonight, Aug. 13.

Actors not only appear in them, they also seem to look at other actors — gesturing up to an actor in a row above them; glaring at an actor beneath them.

“It’s kind of like special effects,” says director Alyssa Hynes, who also wrote the show. It is a kind of cross between a fairy tale medley and a superhero story. Princess! (the exclamation point is part of her name) and Frog, the heroes, need to escape the evil Big Bad Sheep (a wolf in sheep’s clothing); they tell tales of “SuperElla,” a young girl who saves herself from the Step Gang, and “Slaying Beauty.”

The show, which is part of the Magic Trunk series for young audiences, is free. It is about one hour long.

“Superhero Princess Tale” went into rehearsals in March, and originally was set to open in May.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Hynes continued to hold rehearsals over Zoom, reminding the company of what their blocking was and what sightlines would be.

“It was theater therapy for us,” she said. “It was fun to get together, and see people we wouldn’t see, and work on something.”

By June, Hynes realized that the show would not be able to go on as originally planned. The only way to do it would be virtually, and to do that, she had to do it over the summer: some of the company were students and teachers, and waiting for the fall would mean losing them. And there was no certainty they would be able to do it live in the fall. 

So, like many theater productions on Zoom, what audiences see will not be live, but a film. However, Hynes said, it is kind of a hybrid. 

“We filmed each scene twice,” she said. 

Sound effects were added after the fact, as well as cue cards like in a silent movie, announcing whether time has gone by or the scene has shifted. 

“We’ve been rehearsing as if it would go live.” Cameras are turned off of performers not in a scene.

The set is established through actors’ use of Zoom backgrounds. Hynes’ mother designed costumes, with capes and other pieces handed out in individual bags in the parking lot at Studio Playhouse, where the cast will arrive in a staggered schedule. Actors will also use their own clothes for pieces.

FUNNY FACES 

Tricia Zygnerski, of Montclair, plays the Big Bad Sheep, F.A.I.R.Y. G.O.D.M.O.T.H.E.R. (who is also an inventor), and the Dragon. 

There are a lot of quick changes, but being on Zoom has made that part of an actor’s stress a little simpler.

But getting used to appearing in a square has been a challenge.

“I am such the big actor,” Zygnerski said, gesturing. “I like to have my space. And now I stay in my little box. And then, do I have to turn this way, or do I have to turn this place — is the person above me, or are they below me?” How Zoom squares appear and in what order is not necessarily the same for everyone on a call. 

Fellow Montclairian Richard Douglass, who plays Brawn (a kind of handsome baddie), Prince (modeled after the prince in Cinderella), and aspiring hero Malcolm, agrees that acting on Zoom is different.

Studio Players virtual
COURTESY STUDIO PLAYERS F.A.I.R.Y. G.O.D.M.O.T.H.E.R. (Trica Zygnerski) meets Ella (Lisa Annitti).

“I have never looked at my own face so much,” he said with a laugh. “When I’m talking to people at first it can be self-conscious-inducing, but actually, you find as an actor, in some ways it is really helpful. I’m basically making funny faces into my computer. I get to frame my own visual experience for the viewer, and it has been kind of cool to experiment.”

He demonstrated by ducking his head below the Zoom box frame, and coming up slowly, scowling.

“A couple of times in the play, Tricia beats me up,” he said. “I like to throw myself out of frame.” 

He works on bringing some slapstick and physicality into the show, to keep it from being talking heads.

And while he won’t get to hear childish laughter from an audience, his 7-year-old daughter has been helping out by sitting behind the laptop and handing him props. Zygnerski calls her Douglass’ special helper.

In addition to the challenge of interacting with actors not in the room, learning the show itself is different with actors not “on their feet,” but sitting in front of a computer.

“It really showed me how much I rely on my blocking for my lines for memorization,” Zygnerski said. “It definitely is a mind/body kind of experience to learn to come up with the characters. I also like to react to the person next to me. It’s fine to see them on Zoom, but it’s something else when you can actually touch them or interact with them.”

There is not the usual team-building of hanging out backstage for weeks at a time.

“You don’t get to have side conversations,” Douglass agreed. “It’s hard to build a sense of camaraderie and ensemble.”

On the other hand, the script itself can be up on the screen as they act, like out-of-sight teleprompter cards.

“There is no opportunity for the awkward silence,” Zygnerski said, a little wistfully. The onstage improvisation that happens when someone “goes up” on a line is something she misses, that ability to think on your feet.

Figuring out whether made-at-home props looked right on camera was like a tech rehearsal, Douglass said. 

Zygnerski enjoys the moments of special effects that are only possible on Zoom: there is an invisible cat, for example, that is represented by a blank screen. 

Ultimately, the show is still told by “the actors’ bodies on stage and their voices,” Douglass said. 

Though it’s hard to perform without a live audience. 

“Nothing beats the sound of laughter and applause,” Douglass said. “Actors live for that, and it is a huge driver, kind of like instant gratification.” 

But just as in the live world, he noticed that actors began to hone their performances once they put on costumes and acted in front of scenery — the virtual backgrounds.

“It comes to life in that magical way. It’s go time. Whether it’s in a Zoom box, or on the boards, we’re going to put on a show,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to make it interesting and entertaining and fun and funny.”

How to watch

“Superhero Princess Tales” by Alyssa Hynes

Studio Players’ Magic Trunk Show

Virtual performance; link available Thursday, Aug. 13, at
Studioplayhouse.org/superhero- princess-tales-online

Free, but donations welcome