By Luis Castilla
While nothing compares to seeing a play live, the East Los Angeles College Theater Arts Department did not fail in delivering a powerful and relevant adaptation of “Spoon River Anthology.”
Director David Laird Scott said there were no in-person rehearsals for this production. Instead, all the performers recorded their scenes individually.
The play, written by Edgar Lee Masters in 1915, is a collection of epitaphs from the people of the fictional town of Spoon River.
“Spoon River Anthology” is more of a series of monologues than a traditional play.
Although each character has their own story to tell, they contribute to the overall experience of the town, fleshing out the community of Spoon River little by little.
“Spoon River Anthology” is a surprisingly intimate look into the seemingly simple lives of people from a seemingly simple town.
The original work has 224 different epitaphs, but Scott said they adapted 47 of them.
All performers were in costume, however. Many even filmed at scenic locales, further adding a sense of atmosphere that is often lost when it comes to virtual performances. Filming in so many different locations like backyards, gave “Spoon River Anthology” the feeling that it was really filmed in its own town.
Some performers also made use of multiple camera angles, taking advantage of the new format the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon them.
Scott said the actors were in charge of finding settings and appropriate camera angles for their poems.
“Once it was shot, they uploaded their takes to OneDrive and I chose their takes or asked them to reshoot. So as the director of a virtual performance, much was out of my hands and the actors needed to rely on themselves, which I think they handled quite well,” Scott said.
But it was not all smooth sailing for the department. “It was not easy, and there was much to learn about virtual performance,” Scott said.
Scott said they were originally intended to do “Mother Courage and Her Children,” by Bertolt Brecht, but it was too complex for virtual performance.
“When I was 14 or 15, I worked backstage on a summer performance of ‘Spoon River Anthology’ and remembered it vividly,” Scott said. “It easily lent itself to our needs because it is not a play, it is an anthology of epitaphs as poems published written in blank verse, which means the lines have rhythm, but do not rhyme.”
Scott said after casting the play, two of his students had to drop his class due to the pandemic.
“Rehearsing four days a week on Zoom has its challenges,” Scott said. “Actors were on time and worked hard in rehearsal, but in the end, they each had to video record their own poems. Actors had between three and six poems. The actors had to make the characters believable and relatable to a new generation of audience and then find a way to shoot their own poem monologues.”
Scott said he found this production to be more difficult than a traditional one.
“I would have had more impact on the actors’ performances and the shows’ design elements (costumes, set, lighting, sound, props) would have been more consistent,” Scott said. “In person, performances are more hands-on, and being in a neutral space, the theater, allows everyone to be comfortable.”
The department dedicated this one time live stream production, to the late James Johnson who died earlier this year. He was supposed to be the stage manager for “Spoon River Anthology.”