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First show by the Phoenix Theatre in over a year goes the livestream route

ON STAGE What: Problem Child Where: When: March 24-27, 8 p.m.
A photo shows the set and livestream crew rehearsing Problem Child, which is being presented online in real time next week through the University of Victoria's Phoenix Theatre. SIMON FARROW


What: Problem Child
When: March 24-27, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15 per household/link by phone (250-721-8000) from the Phoenix Box Office

The University of Victoria can thank its lucky stars for director Fran Gebhard, who teaches acting for film and television in the school’s theatre program.

The veteran of several high-profile TV productions has proven to be an invaluable resource on Problem Child, the Phoenix Theatre’s first live production for the paying public in more than a year. The Genie-nominated Gebhard had some understanding of what would be required to bring George F. Walker’s play to the Phoenix Theatre stage in the age of social distancing, which includes mask-wearing actors stationed six feet apart for four livestreamed performances next week.

Gebhard turned to television for inspiration. “I directed it for the camera, which means you’ll see a lot of over the shoulder shots,” she said. “What you will see is sort of a hybrid between a piece of theatre and a piece of television.”

The production is using three cameras for its livestream, but due to social distancing protocols, only two of them will be manned (the third will be stationed on a mount and used for wide shots). Actors are playing to the cameras, not an audience, and must hit their marks, as live television (and livestreaming) requires cast and crew to follow shot lists and cues moreso than in traditional theatre.

The participating students learned quickly that audio was also an important aspect, especially with each actor wearing a covering over their mouth. A boom microphone is needed to capture the sound coming off stage so it can be mixed for livestream.

“Choosing a play that didn’t have great deal of physicality was important,” Genhard said. “That’s how we ended up with Problem Child.”

Problem Child made its mark in the 1990s as part of Suburban Motel, a six-play cycle by Walker about fringe dwellers with issues. Staged relatively simply, with only four speaking roles, Problem Child is based around a young couple in limbo who have lost custody of their daughter. The scenes are set in a grotty motel room on the wrong side of town as the couple deals with a social worker, who is expected to make a decision on the future of their family.

The husband had done time in prison and the wife turned to sex work to pay the rent, which complicates matters in the eyes of child services. What comes into view during the second half is a mixture of comedy and social commentary, hallmarks of Walker’s theatre work. He wrote for television at various points in his career, which transferred his aggressive, to-the-point dialogue from the stage to livestream screens with relative ease.

Seven fourth-year acting students appear in the production. A second-year student was also cast, bringing the total to eight. That made it possible for Gebhard to work with two separate casts of four actors each. The casts will perform on alternating nights during Problem Child’s March 24-27 run.

Gebhard, who has to direct all eight actors, said she was in an awkward position during the rehearsal process. She wanted to stay mum on the finer details of each actors’ approach during rehearsals, to avoid influencing their acting decisions. “If an actor comes with an interesting moment, I don’t want to steal, if you will, that moment and give it to another actor in the same role,” she said.

The two casts each have their own personalities, so the result is two unique performances of the same play during one four-day run.

Gebhard was intially scheduled to direct Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead during UVic’s fall semester, which got bumped when live performances did not return on time due to COVID-19 protocols. Gebhard was prepared for the transition when the production was cancelled, however, having already made the switch from campus classrooms to Zoom chatrooms.

She spent some weeks in the summer taking online Zoom classes from out of New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, to familiarize herself with online teaching. The classes taught her what worked and what didn’t in a screen-driven arena, experience she put to good use when adapting Problem Child for the livestream format.

Adding new skills to her résumé more than four decades into career has been a rewarding experience, she said. “I have really enjoyed it. I accepted the challenge to teach online in the fall, because I felt privileged to have my job in this climate, when friends of mine, who are very talented, are not making a living. If this is what we’re doing to give these kids a shot, I’m in — 150 per cent.”