Interview: Cutting Ball’s Ariel Craft Talks About the World Premiere of Charles L. Mee’s ‘Utopia’ and Theatre-Making in the Time of Covid

by Charles Kruger

Currently, Cutting Ball Theatre is presenting, via streaming video, the world premiere of “Utopia,” by Charles L. Mee. This play was comissioned by Cutting Ball and has been in development for the past two years.

Chris Steele performs in the world premiere of Charles L. Mee’s “Utopia” for Cutting Ball. Photo credit: Cutting Ball.

Today, I spoke with director Ariel Craft about theatre in the time of Covid, and the decision to produce the play on video.

I asked her, what was it like at the beginning of the Covid shutdowns?

“We’d been rehearsing our production of ‘Cyrano,” she told me. “We were a few weeks into rehearsal, when we stopped because of the shutdown. At first, we thought it would just be a hiatus, that we’d resume rehearsals in a week or that we’d open the show a little later than planned. When it was clear that the closures wouldn’t end quickly, we canceled the production. It was a big creative hit to lose ths show. And, because we honored the contracts of all the artists and technicians involved, it was also a big financial hit for the company.”

Ariel went on to tell me that, as the weeks have gone into months, she occasionally visits the theatre, now empty of people.

“The theatre is exactly as we left it,” she told me. “I walk into the theatre and around the set. Our scripts are still sitting open, on the page where we stopped working. Costumes and props are lying about. It’s very lonely to be there. I remember the show we never got to share.”

I said it sounded like Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius. We shared an ambivalent laugh.

When the company realized there could be no live production of “Utopia”, they considered whether an internet alternative would be a possibility.

“In general,” Ariel told me, “I’m not enthusiastic about trying to take live theatre to a virtual setting. I’ve seen too many plays wrecked by ZOOM malfunctions and internet lags. Some plays are really meant to be experienced live, in the room with the action.”

On the other hand, Mee’s work is unconventional enough to justify an unconventional approach.

“There are some plays,” she said, “that can excel in a virtual format.”

Once Mee agreed (he told Ariel, “Well, at least a lot more people might see it,”), it was decided to compromise. The production team would work with the actors via ZOOM in their homes to create as full a production as possible. It would be recorded, edited, and presented on video. Essentially, the production would be cut as a film.

I wondered if actual camera operators visited each actor’s home.

“Oh, no,” said Ariel. “It was all done with social distancing. We sent some material by mail. Then I drove all over the Bay area for days. I made curbside deliveries of lighting equipment, props, and costumes, without any contact.”

Ariel points out that the subject of “Utopia” has been topical for all the years of the Trump administration, with its many dystopian manifestations. The addition of the Covid 19 crisis only increases this relevancy. In some ways, she thinks, the current manifestation of Mee’s script may well be a legitimate interpretation in its own right, and not merely a compromise with current conditions.

This Saturday (10/24),  Cutting Ball is organizing a hybrid experience: using the wonders of ZOOM technology, the viewing audience will gather together preshow for cocktails and conversation. This will happen in a ZOOM room, and the producers will send all attendees the recipes for a signature cocktail (or mocktail alternative) in advance. Then after the performance, the ZOOM room will open again for an after party, where the company and the audience members can mingle and chat about their experience.

“We want to create, as much as we can, an experience like a live performance,” said Ariel.

Before we ended the interview, I aked Ariel what she would most like to say about her Covid experience.

She told me, “At the start, I figured this was temporary and I’d just hunker down for a couple of weeks or months and get through it. But now, this has been going on for a long time, and its going to go on for longer. I have to find a way to live through it, not just survive. Yes, there are a ton of limitations. But theatre thrives on limitations. Maybe the limitations we have with COVID will lead to creative break-throughs we couldn’t have imagined otherwise. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“UTOPIA” is available for streaming on the internet through November 18th. For further information, click here.

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