The first time I met Joe Krawczyk was over 5 years ago at the Thespis Theater Festival. It was a scorching hot day, and the air-conditioning at the Hudson Guild Theatre was barely functioning. But that didn’t stop Joe’s play from being the hottest show on that stage (but in a good way).
His play, It’s All About Lorrie, was competing with 69 other new plays in the festival for cash prizes. I had seen many of them, but when I watched this show, I knew he had a winner and I told him so. I was right. He swept every award and I was forever impressed. So much so that for the last 5 years we have been working together with my development company, Alliance Media Theatricals, to bring it to a professional stage here in NYC, after a short tour nationwide. In spite of a few pandemic setbacks, and with the help of two very talented Broadway Producers (Jim Kierstead and William Fernandez), a young, energetic director (Conor Bagley), and an AEA cast that patiently worked with us during these strange times, we are finally shopping the show for a tour. Under such circumstances, any playwright would have his hands full, but not Joe. Serious and committed to his playwriting, he is constantly writing, and rewriting. This brings us to latest work, Black Metamorphosis, opening this week at The Rogue Theater Festival.
An award-winning playwright, Joe has written quite a few works during those 5 years. He has been produced by IATI, The American Theater of Actors, and various out-of-town productions. When he approached me a few months ago with an idea to submit to Rogue, I was not surprised. He had written a short play about a young White man that somehow wakes up as a Black man, and how he, and his parents, come to terms with his new “look" and situation. The story is a dark comedy with a strong, and timely social commentary inspired by the many obvious events of the past year. He asked me to read the play and to produce and direct it.
On the table were several challenges. Telling this story, for one, was a sensitive subject that required careful handling (and some humor, I thought). The entire BLM movement, the heightened (or perhaps just more visible) racism that now infiltrates this country should must be carefully handled. The idea of parents now having to tell their young adult son that “as a Black man” things would be forever different needed to drive the point home, but not come across preachy.
Another major challenge was that the idea of directing a show for a “virtual festival” such as The Rogue Theater Festival was something none of us had really done before. We had completed the It’s All About Lorrie reading with a pre-recorded (and edited) zoom reading (executive produced by Broadway United), but we now realized that we needed to tackle this new play as a cinematic translation that retained the live feel of a theatrical play, yet add a filmic quality to the story.
To incorporate this new approach, and keep everyone safe, we decided to cast the play vaccinated actors, and team members, follow covid protocols, and use Joe’s Manhattan apartment as the location for the shoot. The plan was to rehearse on good old Zoom (feels that way, right?), bring the actors to set for 2 or 3 days, and now have the luxury of closeups and angles to enhance the material. Much of it was new to us, but with just weeks before the final edit was due, we began our journey into uncharted territory.
Doing the table read, and rehearsing on Zoom, the job was actually quite easy, maybe because we realized how well-suited Zoom is for rehearsing. But then taking that theatrical material and shifting to a filmic approach was a bit more challenging. One thing you are tempted to do is go all in like a movie. But this is theatre and to acquire that theatrical feel, you have to fight the impulse. Unlike the stage, the blocking poses different challenges that often don’t appear until you begin the shoot. Plus, the camera can pick up nuances that maybe a live production might not. And here is a secret, if you are a stage director playing with editing: final edits can easily influence and control what an actors does ion ways you can't with nightly live performances.
While we all admit to missing the live experience, and wanting to return to it fully, I now believe that this pandemic has already changed how we will approach theatre production forever. Some things, it seems, may even be turning out to be better for the self-producing or indy producer with this technology at hand... like the power and convenience of Zooming. With zoom rehearsals, for instance, we save a ton of money compared to the traditional expense of having to schedule, book, and rent rehearsal space. Zoom allows you to rehearse from anywhere, at any time, and there is no commuting until we chose to bring everyone together for the blocking and other "live" elements. If you haven't figured it out yet, the theatre festival experience has been irrevocably altered. In truth, I may never direct a festival play again, but I would happily direct a virtual play anytime.
By the time we arrived on location to shoot the whole project on an iPhone (the right phone and the right apps are the secret) the actors had their work ready to go, and our ideas to capturing it all on camera were about 90% planned out and ready to go. It may not be not be a movie, true, but as a modern theatre producer, we now need to up our game no matter what. We are discovering all this as we chug along.
For the festival, which has more experience on this level thanks to this being Rogue's second virtual festival, the challenges are becoming easier. But for anyone looking to produce or develop theatre, the lesson is that now, looking at all these new technologies, we can enhance any production, regardless of whether we want it to end up live or recorded.
Together with cast, makeshift crew, and Joe’s wife, Bernice, providing us food (and by default, having served unknowingly as the set design) we finished the shoot in two days. Sean Phillips (as Larry), and his “parents” (Thomas J. Kane and Valerie O’Hara as Jack and Mary) gave the story some very fun twists, in a way that I had never experienced before as a director. At the end of the day, we created theatre, but just a different kind of theatrical experience. What we now have is not meant to replace, but perhaps to archive, enhance, and challenge.
After a few days of editing, Joe had this to say. “It exceeded my expectations since it was a stage play that was designed and shot cinematically."
To that, I add, we live and learn.
Black Metamorphosis by Joseph P. Krawczyk, debuts at The Rogue Theatre Festival on Friday, July 24th at 4:30pm, and then streams for a full week from July 26th until August 2nd.
Tickets are now available for the debut here: https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/53787
To rent the livestream for 24 hours, please visit: https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/54183