Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Playing Sick

SJSU'S first virtual play about a plague shows how history seems to repeat itself
LIKE THE PLAGUE: SJSU students, theater technicians, lighting designers, and camera people are eager to get back to work, even if it's sans a live audience. Courtesy of SJSU

From London in 1665 to downtown San Jose in 2020, the plague will be streamed live this Saturday at 7:30pm.

Thanks to the Hammer Theatre's broadcasting technology, SJSU's first-ever virtual play, The Living, will depict 17th century events in which the Great Plague of London infected the population and the king didn't care. Originally crafted by playwright Anthony Clarvoe in the '90s as a response to the AIDS epidemic, The Living now transforms into a play about the Covid-19 era. SJSU Theatre Arts lecturer Johnny Moreno directs the play, while Barnaby Dallas takes on the role of production manager.

After months of boredom, SJSU students, theater technicians, lighting designers, and even camera people are chomping at the bit to work again, even without a live audience. "You have actors wanting to get up and get back to what they do best, which is telling stories," Moreno says. "And the fact that we just haven't had that ability to do so because of this current pandemic has obviously been very frustrating. I do believe that storytelling is an essential service. So for these actors and designers and directors, and of course audience members, I think we're all just needing that connection."

The Living takes us to 17th century London, yet much of the dynamics bear an eerie resemblance to the current day. Many people stayed in London to help battle the disease and help those in serious trouble. The king, the wealthy social elite and the politicians all departed, completely abandoning poverty-stricken communities. Middle manager types and regular people were left struggling to cope.

In the play, a scientist tracks statistics of the dead, yet she's totally ignored by the king, whose only concern is that the plague won't be viewed as his fault. She tells him how it spreads when people gather. She explains the numbers, but the king doesn't care. In the process, many are willing to protect their own hides and ignore those that are dying. They flee. They head for the country, but then the disease moves into the country and kills them, too.

"It's really about those certain individuals that came together to make sense of it all and to help those in need," Moreno says. "It's really a celebration of humanity, of life. But for me, it's really a story about what connects us, what binds us and what it is we can do when we come together in the face of adversity."

The play is not performed in Old English. It's an updated narrative, a re-imagination of actual historical events and people, yet with the actors already scripted to be socially distanced on stage, as part of the production. When explaining it, Dallas drops a Clockwork Orange comparison, yet promises that a degree of hope will indeed emerge.

"We did a very modern interpretation of it, which the playwright said is exactly how he wants it to be," Dallas said.

When it comes to details, the play will be live streamed and then available on-demand. That means on Saturday the cast and crew will run the entire show straight through, broadcasting it live with no audience present, but also save it for those who want to watch later.

Some maneuvering became necessary, especially in terms of how to combine film aesthetics with theatricality to achieve the best of both worlds. For instance, lighting a stage for live theater is quite different than what film cameras normally require. Plus, with cameras, the operators can now zoom in on the actors, which in turn affects the staging to some degree. These are fun challenges, of course.

In the end, after months of downtime, students, designers and technicians are all looking forward to the day when the live theater world opens up once more, even if we seem to be headed for an ominous Covid-19 winter. For now, everyone is just grateful to be back in the building again.

"We're all Covid trained," Dallas says. "The students come in, their temperature gets taken. We're spread out through the theater. When they're backstage, they're standing on their marks. It's even more hardcore than going to the grocery store."