Even during self-isolation, all the world’s a stage, and a newly launched theater troupe is more than happy to prove it.
On May 23, QuaranTeen Theatricals will bring its online concert version of “Into the Woods” to YouTube and Facebook. The 17-person project draws from high school and college actors in the Greater Philadelphia area and was created by Marlton residents Aren Duffy and Abi Sanie, both of whom were eager to flex their creativity while staying connected online with friends and fellow performers.
“Aren had texted me saying that we know so many talented people, we need to do something in a time when people are losing so many of the experiences that they hold dear,” recalled Sanie, who had just finished her freshman year at Concordia University in Montreal before becoming the show’s production manager.
Noticing how people turned to movies, television shows and other storytelling avenues to find some solace during the COVID-19 quarantine, Duffy and Sanie wanted to bring the magic of musical theater to a weary audience.
“We decided to bring together our amazing, creative, talented friends for what we happen to love most, which is theater, in the hopes that it would bring smiles to our faces and make other people happy, as well,” Sanie said.
What resulted was the idea to have each cast member record themselves at home, then piece together each individual performance into one video.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” brings together familiar fairy tales and their characters, weaving them into a greater narrative about quests and consequences. It is a particular favorite of Sanie’s as well as Duffy and his sister, Laura, both of whom are working behind the scenes and performing in the show as The Baker and Cinderella, respectively.
The show also generously showcases the individual strengths of a large cast, which was important to the co-creators since many performers’ spring musicals had been canceled when schools shifted to remote learning.
“‘Into the Woods’ is a show that I’ve loved for a really long time,” Duffy said. “There are a lot of different characters to play with who are so different and interesting, which makes the project a lot of fun.”
Sanie and Duffy have worked together before and knew what kind of dynamics to expect, and that helped facilitate virtual rehearsals on Jitsi, a meeting app similar to Zoom. But they agree it’s been a challenge rehearsing and convening without actually interacting as they would for a live show.
“We can’t physically be together, so we had to figure out ways to work around that, but we’re figuring it out as we go,” Duffy said.
“I think the biggest challenge we have is finding a way to work together on an online platform,” Sanie agreed. “Navigating the challenges of being online and helping people through technology difficulties that we’re not always equipped to deal with as theater people has been the biggest challenge, as well as balancing a rehearsal schedule with really sticking to deadlines so we can get this project done on time.”
One of those early challenges was foreseeing the need to make sure everyone was keeping the same time, so songs could be seamlessly stitched together. The Duffy siblings took it upon themselves to record every song for the cast to use.
“That was really important to the whole process,” said Duffy. “With everyone being in different spaces, we had to find one sound and the only way to do that was have one rehearsal track for everyone. Since my sister and I are in the same house, we did every single part of the show so everyone can keep in time to the same track while they’re recording their videos.”
Aside from rehearsals and group meetings, the QuaranTeen team individually records its own songs, dialogue and reactions to be included in the final video. Sanie added that cast members also lean on each other emotionally, helping them get through the tougher parts of isolation while fostering a deeper sense of family among them.
“There are mental and emotional challenges of dealing with this quarantine, so we wanted to make sure everyone is comfortable in our working environment. We’re all checking in on each other,” she said. “I think the main thing I’ll remember about this cast is everyone’s resilience, everyone’s willingness to come together and work so hard to make something like this so amazing.”
Along with connecting on a whole new level and performing in a whole new way, the production has also coaxed its creative team into exploring new skills and new ways to think outside the box.
“I think it’s given me a lot of new perspective because I’m always learning from Abi and the cast, and I’m thinking like a director and an actor,” Duffy noted. “We’re some of the first people to do something like this, so we had to figure out a lot of technical aspects.”
“We’re learning very quickly that to adapt theater to a medium like an online video, we need skills outside the theater, like marketing skills, and video- and sound-editing skills, so we’re really tapping into everyone’s range of talents to make this work,” Sanie agreed with a laugh.
The duo also agree the labor of love is worth it and can’t wait to debut their finished product later this month.
“This cast is so ready to put aside what they’re going through to put a smile on other people’s faces,” Sanie said.
After the performance, QuaranTeen Theatricals will do a Q&A on YouTube for those interested in learning more about the rehearsal and recording processes.
“This is something pretty new, so there are a lot of aspects going into this that we weren’t sure we’d be able to pull off,” Duffy explained. “We had to learn different tricks to pull this off, and we’ll be talking about how we made everything work and all the things we learned about acting without being in the same physical space.”
In the end, Sanie is thrilled for the opportunity to help anyone who needs a little bit of escapism in these strange times.
“People are turning to Netflix and Spotify, and we hope to be a part of the arts they relied on during quarantine,” she said.
QuaranTeen Theatricals has been charting its progress and profiling cast members on Facebook and Instagram. Check out their May 23 video debut on either Facebook or YouTube, followed by a live Q&A with the cast.