The last live production at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz before the pandemic was “West Adams.” The new play by the theater’s resident playwright, Penelope Lowder, addresses racism and gentrification in the historic South L.A. neighborhood. To avoid shutting down completely, the theater company found a way to showcase short plays by Lowder and other playwrights without risking audience members’ health — they’re performed live on Zoom instead of onstage.
Skylight Theatre prides itself on working with diverse local artists to produce culturally-relevant new plays that spark conversation, so when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the theater to go dark, it felt like a missed opportunity. Gary Grossman, Producing Artistic Director at Skylight says, “We wanted to continue to be in touch with the community, especially during this time.”
To maintain that connection, they created Skylight Live, a series of free-to-watch 10-minute plays. The team members reached out to writers they’ve worked with in the past, as well as the broader writing community, with the instructions, “Write a 10-minute piece regarding how you feel about what's going on right now.”
They do three online rehearsals for each show. It’s a chance for the cast to practice and for the theater to handle any potential glitches in advance. Grossman says the biggest challenge of producing live theater on Zoom is that there’s no tech crew. When a show happens in a real theater, the technicians are right there to work out the kinks. “It’s happening on the stage in front of everybody, so if a light goes, out, it’s easy to figure out, ‘Oh, it’s over there,’ and we’ll take a ladder and put it up.” With the Zoom performances, it’s not that simple. “Now we have, in the case of some of these plays, four or five different locations. We're doing this, and the biggest problem is our internet service.” The directors do their part by reminding the actors, “Don’t move too much, because if you move too much, you lose the connection for a moment.”
The playwrights make the most of the Zoom format — you’ll catch the occasional reference to a broken camera or being on “mute” — but there are no green screens here, no bells and whistles. Shaina Rosenthal, artistic associate, says, “It's more about, ‘Can we tell stories that will reach the people who are watching this with heartfelt, truthful, powerful acting and subject matter that is relatable?’”
Some of the Skylight Live pieces stand alone, while others revisit the same characters every few weeks. The plays explore how the coronavirus is affecting people’s friendships, relationships, state of mind and more. The series kicked off March 26 with “Our First Honest Conversation,” a play by Christine Hamilton Schmidt about a couple struggling to feel connected as they quarantine in different places.
“Water” by resident playwright Lowder premiered April 16. In it, four Black women meet on Zoom to chat about their experiences in the pandemic. What starts as a casual conversation between old friends becomes something much deeper.
After each 10-minute performance, the Zoom continues with a live discussion. This is similar to the “Beyond Conversation” events Skylight holds when the theater is open. Following select performances, they invite special guests to the stage for a related conversation. Grossman says, “It's not the usual, ‘Let's talk to the writer and the actors about how they created the show.’ It's basically, ‘Let's talk about the subject matter, and what the play brings up.’”
Rosenthal adds, “We're providing an opportunity for people to first become familiar with the subject matter through fictional characters that they can relate to, and then also introducing them to experts and real people who have experience with the things that we're talking about in our plays, so that they can meet real people who have lived experience dealing with the subject matter.”
Following Sunday performances of “West Adams,” the theater held panel discussions about the housing crisis and the racial wealth gap, bringing together professors from UCLA and USC and representatives from local nonprofits.
The post-play discussions for Skylight Live shows give the writers, director and actors an opportunity to talk about their creative process and answer questions from the audience. Rosenthal says, “What that gives us the opportunity to do is to still hear from the community who is experiencing this pandemic, and hear how they're relating to the content from home.”
Skylight Theatre’s artistic team is unsure when they’ll be holding performances in their Los Feliz theater again, but they expect to keep Skylight Live going at least until the end of the year. They’re excited that the online performances have made it possible to feature more artists than they typically do in a season. They’re reaching new writers and new audiences.
The team is currently open to submissions of 10-minute plays for Skylight Live. Grossman says, “We’ve sent the word out that we’re looking for plays and we’re looking for new voices, so whoever’s got one, please send one.” Rosenthal added, “We’re airing things weekly, and the climate changes very quickly, so if anyone is inspired by reading about this, they can even write a play that they don't already have that fits in the Zoom format. We're always trying to talk about what's happening in the world right now.”
Top Image: Allison Blaize, Clayton Farris, Jenny Soo in "West Adams," which deals with gentrification. | Ed Krieger