Ev Lunning, Jr., on Zoom Acting in Pandemic Times, Austin Shakespeare Blog, January 12, 20232

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I always associated “necessity is the mother of invention” with Poor Richard’s Almanac, but Perfesser Wikipedia (send in your $10 today) says otherwise. He traces the aphorism back to Aesop and Plato and, also notes that Alfred North Whitehead thought “Necessity is the mother of all futile dodges” to be more accurate.


Ev Lunning, Jr (via Austin Shakespeare)When producers, actors and directors were confined to their houses and apartments by the current plague, they latched onto the video-conferencing platform Zoom. After March 2020 our volunteer work for Austin Interfaith began to be conducted over Zoom. And Robi Polgar included me in an online reading of his environmental parable Risk, or What Nature Doesn’t Do to Us (a precursor to Don’t Look Up). We set up a card table in a corner of the bedroom that supported laptop and lights, and I assembled a pile of props that included an umbrella. I was shoving the cursor across the screen to mute, unmute and scroll the text. Chaos.


Ann Ciccolella and Alex Alford, the fearless leaders of Austin Shakespeare, determined to keep contact with the subscribers and perhaps attract some additional audience with Zoom readings. In December 2020, they recruited me to join in a Zoom reading of William Gillette’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Everyone in the group played several roles, and I ended up taking on Professor Moriarty. Video designer, Lowell Bartholomee had developed the capacity to provide digital backgrounds, and we were provided with a menu of backgrounds appropriate to the scenes we were in. Added to the list of engineering tasks was switching on the appropriate background. The checklist went something like:


  • Change costume piece.

  • Switch digital background.

  • Unmute mic.

  • Position text on screen.

  • Switch on camera, and . . .


Magic Time! The problems with the digital backgrounds included needing a greenscreen for a background. I borrowed an 8’ length of 1x4 from a neighbor and a bolt of green fabric from Ann. I stapled the green fabric to the 1x4 and balanced the board on the top of the 6’ TV console. This meant that the living room was now the studio for the broadcasts. Perhaps inspired by Gary Oldman’s tinted glasses for Dracula and adopted a pair of aviator shades for Moriarty. Who could anticipate that Stephen Colbert would employ them for his impression of J. Biden?


In March and April of 2021, the intrepid company essayed both parts of Henry IV, broadcasting one segment a night. Eye contact. Robbed of the performers’ physical presence, the audience needs the sense that the player/reader is speaking directly to them. In order to appear that I am speaking directly to the screen, I must fix my eyes on the little green dot on the top edge of the screen. If my eyes follow the text down the screen, the power of my gaze is diluted. So, I need to keep the text scrolling so I’m reading as close to the top of the screen as possible. Woe betides if the text skips half a page and leaves me gasping. Zoom acting is like swan swimming—lots going on beneath your view.


Zoom Theater: Innovative invention or futile dodge? Theater producers must be commended for doing their best to keep the art breathing. Let us do our best to support them.


Ev Lunning Jr. (retired theater faculty member of St. Edward’s University) has acted with Austin Shakespeare for many years. Ev has portrayed Roebuck Ramsden in Shaw’s Man and Superman, Pyotr Sorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Big Daddy in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.