McLean’s Traveling Players Ensemble Presents: Plays via Zoom

Anyone who says a Zoom webinar can’t be action-packed should brace themselves for the young actors of the Traveling Players Ensemble, who will be fighting ogres, evacuating subways and fleeing detectives in three one-act plays adapted for Zoom next week.

The players are making final preparations for the inaugural festival, which will be held on Dec. 13 with shows from 2-3:15 p.m., 3:30-4:45 p.m. and 7-8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for access to a Zoom webinar.

A McLean-based theater company for youths in grades 4-12, the Traveling Players Ensemble is known for its summer camps, so when COVID-19 arrived this spring, it had to make a choice: be outdoors with masks, or be virtual without them.

Since masks were not going to be an effective way to perform, the group went virtual. Producing Artistic Director Jeanne Harrison says she was pleasantly surprised by the results.

“We couldn’t believe it worked, or that the community became strong,” she said. “We thought it would be isolating. It didn’t work for 100% of the kids, but it worked for most of them.”

She decided to carry that energy into the fall by doing something new for TPE: fall plays. The young actors are upbeat about performing for the Zoom screen.

“I feel like it hasn’t affected the way I act very much,” said Sara Kaufman, who plays Flavia, a teen who travels back in time to first-century London when it was occupied by the Romans, in “Dust.”

While she does not have to do as much physical blocking, Kaufman says “you can still interact and play off people’s energies online on Zoom.”

She and fellow actor Kaitlyn McCarley say it is hard not to see the audience and play off their reactions. Instead, Kaufman, McCarley, and fellow actor Liam Mclaughlin read the congratulatory messages on the Zoom chat for a confidence boost between acts.

Mclaughlin plays a comic relief character named Unferth in “Beowulf (and the Bard).” While his acting has not changed, he has started moving the camera around to alter what the audience sees for comedic effect.

“Sometimes, that makes things, if anything, a bit better,” Mclaughlin said. “You can do a lot of things with a camera that you couldn’t do with an audience’s point of view.”

This is the second time the TPE kids have performed virtual plays, and performers say their family members appreciated how low-key it felt.

“My mom watched it at home, and she said it was nice because she didn’t have to dress up,” said McCarley, who plays Scipio, the self-proclaimed “thief lord” in a play adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s book, “The Thief Lord.”

While parents watch in one room, kids act in “studios” outfitted with green screens — or just a blank walls — for imposing digital backdrops, along with off-screen reminders for where to run or pass an item.

That is because “what the actors see is generally wrong,” Harrison says.

In the grid view on Zoom, each user might see participants in a different order, so actors must move based on the master Zoom view that will be broadcast to the audience.

Orchestrating this can be complicated, and Harrison admits she broke her own rules for Zoom-friendly plays, which should not have too many characters on-screen at once or scenes with complex activities. With 30 characters and a hectic subway evacuation scene, “Dust” is especially boundary-pushing.

Harrison embraces the chaos, because she wants rehearsal to be physically demanding.

“If they were going to virtual school, they were going to actual rehearsal,” she said.

For the kids, the virtual environment does not make the experience less real. McCarley can still be silly with her friends during breaks, and Mclaughlin says he made new friends during rehearsals.

“I’ve still been able to form really real friendships with people and be part of the community,” Kaufman said. “It doesn’t feel fabricated or virtual — it feels like a good time.”

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