By Dale King
Zen Buddhists are notorious, perhaps apocryphally, for spending time pondering the sound of a single hand clapping.
But the nearly 40 South Florida actors and artists gathered up last month by Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab for its first-ever Online Original Monologue Festival concluded their singular performances to the sound of no hands clapping.
There was a good reason for that. Each cast member was at home, in front of a camera with a connection to Facebook, their torsos broadcast across digital screens throughout the region.
In truth, Theatre Lab’s stage at FAU that night was empty, as were the audience gallery, backstage rooms and ancillary quarters – in keeping with “stay home, stay safe” rules to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus has forced stages throughout the world to go dark. And Theatre Lab Artistic Director Matt Stabile, unwilling to take his rescheduled season lying down, decided to go on with the show via high-tech.
The actor-director revised Theatre Lab’s usual end-of-season Overnight Theatre venture into a cyber-production. “Last month, we launched a new project designed to engage the community through acts of art in an effort to support South Florida’s theater artists affected by the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
The show produced the night of March 29, with performers virtually transported from their homes via Facebook, Zoom and other technological gadgetry, was such a success, Stabile said, that another production – titled #OOMF No. 2 – will be staged Monday at 7:30 p.m.
“Theatre Lab plans to go live on Facebook with the April #OOMF called ‘Heroes,’” he said. “Performers will donate their work and display the payment app IDs of the ‘Featured Unsung Heroes,’ allowing viewers to directly support the featured individuals.”
The theater boss said Monday’s show will be a little smoother than the first. He noted that so many people turned out for #OOMF 1 that everyone got the go to perform – and the show ran just over three hours.
#OOMF 1 was also intended to go live. “It 5 p.m., we were supposed to be on the air. We had an issue with the technology, with Facebook.” The program hit Facebook on tape delay.
“We think we have the issue corrected,” said Stabile.
Just in case, “the live show will be recorded and posted on YouTube the following day so that viewers can continue to enjoy the show and support those amazing individuals.”
Exercising their acting muscles with no one offering reactions was a bit odd, said a couple of performers. But there was also a special quality that kept the production engaging.
“I never performed without an audience; I never had to,” said Niki Fridh, who presented a monologue called Snakebite – written by her mother, Kristie Fridh, and directed by Stabile, her husband.
“It was really wonderful, and special for me,” she said. It was the story of my mother and her father, my grandfather. She drew it from her childhood.”
Actress Fridh said the show had a “very profound takeaway. While the show was going on, I forgot that we were dealing with a pandemic. That was a real gift.”
Singer/actress Leah Marie Sessa, who performed Harnessing the Energy, written by Summer Moore, admitted afterward she was “blessed and blown away to witness the beauty of this community coming together so quickly and without pause for this wonderful cause, and how generous people are.”
Sessa said she lost two gigs to coronavirus. She was set to perform in Camelot at Actors Playhouse, which was called off. And her bartender job also vanished.
“Both of these industries are a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of job, so losing both was a devastating blow. Thanks to the success of OOMF 1, I was able to raise some money for myself to help me stay afloat, at least for a while.”
In all, said Stabile, “more than 2,500 people have watched the original festival and audience members have contributed more than $4,000 directly to participating artists.”
That production was also “fun,” said Sessa. “It was a beautiful piece written by Summer Moore, who had actually never written a monologue before. So, this was a treat for her to see her words brought to life.”
#OOMF 1 presented stories about hope, said Stabile – “original monologues and stories, written by community members and performed by South Florida actors and artists, all to support local artists.” During the performances, viewers were encouraged to support artists affected by the COVID-19 crisis by making donations via online payment platforms.
The theme of Monday’s performance is “Heroes.” Stabile said the show will be shorter, perhaps featuring 18 bits. Two-person, three-page plays may also be included.
The show, said the artistic director, will raise money to support “the stage managers, designers, technicians, administrators, box office employees and anyone else who plays a part in bringing the magic of live theater to South Florida.”