Stage tech brings virtual performances to life

Sofie Zalatimo and Tara Kapoor

After weeks of preparation, the Palo Alto High School stage tech team is hosting “Clue,” “Murder by Poe,” and “She Kills Monsters” via Zoom. The new virtual setting presents many challenges but also produces opportunities for creative adjustments, according to junior and assistant director Maya Mazer-Hoofien. “It was a little frustrating, but we made it work,” Hoofien said. “We’re more confident with the virtual space, and we get so much input from each other.” Graphic: Kabir Advani.

Hours before a Palo Alto High School theater production, hair and makeup artist Maya Mazer-Hoofien can typically be found painting intricate makeovers, drawing zombie scars, or maybe twisting actors’ hair into animal manes.

Yet this fall production season, Hoofien’s makeup experience is anything but hands-on. Hoofien, a junior, instead spends hours compiling makeup kits and spreadsheets full of items to send to cast members. Then, she FaceTime trains them to self-apply complex makeup and costume art.

As assistant director, Hoofien is one of many members of the stage tech crew hard at work preparing for theater productions — virtually. She said she found the remote environment challenging to navigate.

“It is tough,” Hoofien said. “It is very frustrating that we don’t get to do it [the plays] justice the way that the author intended.”

Ongoing shows “Clue,” “Murder by Poe” and “She Kills Monsters” each carry a spooky theme, prompting the stage tech team to shift the balance between classic theater plays and online film effects, according to Hoofien. Without a physical set, the stage tech team has been experimenting with animations and video elements to cultivate a captivating environment for audience members.

“Our director, Ms. Thermond, has actually been very adamant that it’s still a play,” Hoofien said. “But we get to play a lot with film elements … And that’s something that you can’t really do on stage. You can do it in a different way.”

Sarah Thermond, Paly’s theater director, echoed the sentiment on enhancing the shows with technology features. Thermond said adding virtual backgrounds to individual objects, inserting and shifting characters on screen and framing actors to manipulate their height appearance have allowed for dramatic visual impacts.

During the shows, the cast performs on Zoom while the performance is live-streamed to the audience through Youtube and a television streaming service. According to Thermond, this process allows cast and crew members to use the Zoom chat to mimic the communication system of a theater between performers’ earpieces and backstage directions.

Thermond said the thespian experience, however, is slightly different.

“It’s not film acting,” Thermond said, “But it’s much closer to film acting than we normally would be.”

As a positive, Thermond said student actors now have the opportunity to take on a more diverse array of roles.

“I think often when teenagers are getting cast, there are some stereotypes,” Thermond said. “You’re taller, you’re going to be the older characters. You’re short, you’re going to be a child… That didn’t come up at all, so that was kind of fun.”

In addition to being an assistant director and a hair and makeup designer, Hoofien is also a cast member. According to Hoofien, catering costumes and show props to the cast has been a challenge.

“Logistically, there’s a lot of issues with getting people stuff that usually would be in the same building we were rehearsing in,” Hoofien said.

Another challenge crew members face, Hoofien said, is adapting scenes involving complex interactions. In-person interaction on stage — typically central to performance — is now limited, requiring tech members to alter or remove scenes that are no longer effective.

“We don’t want this to look incredibly cheesy,” Hoofien said. “Death scenes and a stabbing or a kiss… you have to really draw the line between, are we going to cut this? Is it going to look dumb? Are we going to just do it and hope?”

Despite numerous challenges, the process of adapting to a virtual setting has been very collaborative. According to Hoofien, the members of the theater leadership team bring a wide variety of ideas to the table, which have coalesced into a strong final product.

“There’s just so much more room to mess around and come up with things,” Hoofien said. “We’re more confident with the virtual space… We get so much input from each other, and it’s really, really amazing.”

Tickets for the trio of plays “Murder, Mystery, and Monsters,” can be purchased through the Paly Theatre website. The shows premiered Friday, Nov. 6 and will continue through Sunday, Nov. 15.