Before they knew it, they were in a relationship.
In April, 24 actors, several designers and one Tony Award-winning director, Diane Paulus, embarked on a groundbreaking digital “workshop” for a Broadway-bound revival of the musical “1776.” The story of a revolution with a revolutionary non-binary, gender-inclusive cast. And they did it under the most harrowing of circumstances: a pandemic.
No longer able to gather for the traditionally hands-on process of assembling a new show, Paulus was relying instead on the fingers and faces of a cast and creative team perched at laptops and isolated across 13 states and the District. Rehearsals were supposed to start April 6 in New York City, led by Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Plans called for a 13-city national tour to begin at the ART, where it was conceived, later this year, ending with a run on Broadway in spring 2021 at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Paulus realized that if she still hoped to have a production ready to launch whenever theaters reopened, she had to devise another way of preparing.
“I said to my team, ‘We’re going to try this, and if it doesn’t work, it’s okay,’ ” Paulus said of the daily meetups organized on Zoom, the platform that has become a kind of town square in the age of covid-19. What the Zoom gatherings unleashed, though, was by all accounts unexpected and remarkable, to the point that some participants say they can’t imagine starting another show without them.
“Through this format,” Paulus said, “there was an intensity of shared experience that went very deep.”
As a quarantined theater world copes with confounding new realities and open-ended separation from its natural habitat, new methods are being experimented with to fill the void. Theaters are, for instance, live-streaming their plays on YouTube and their websites, with varying degrees of technical and artistic success. But what happens to a slew of other projects still in development for Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theaters? Is online communication a viable alternative for building a show? “1776” is one of the first productions to attempt the experiment.
The concept Paulus came up with for the 1969 Tony-winning musical — a big-canvas account of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence — was a fitting match for the unconventional nature of this workshop. (A workshop is generally less formal than rehearsals, which start a few weeks before performances begin.) All the actors in her cast identify as female, genderqueer, non-binary or trans. The roles of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the other figures of the Continental Congress would be filled in a way audiences had never seen.
“Hamilton,” of course, reset our expectations for imagining history, with actors of color playing virtually every major part. For this new staging of “1776,” with words and music by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, Paulus had similar aspirations. Her company has explored nontraditional terrain before, in productions like Rachel Chavkin’s recent adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” On this new occasion, she asked herself: “How could I cast it so that it looked like 2020?”
“Okay, wow, this is not the role traditionally I would have gone out for!” said Crystal Lucas-Perry, who plays John Adams, the musical’s central character, conceived as the caustic driving force in Congress behind unifying the colonies. That impulse in Adams made Detroit-born Lucas-Perry believe she could play him: “I can definitely connect with someone who wants to get something off the ground.”
Paulus said she had no way of knowing whether introducing cast members to one another long distance would be worth it. She was a neophyte to Zoom, a service that before the virus primarily had been used as a business conferencing tool. But the deep historical roots of “1776” seemed to her as ripe for investigation online as any play or musical might be. And she felt a special imperative to immerse her actors in history, given that they would be exposing audiences to it in such a fresh and challenging way.
“I had this theory that if I could talk about the show, I could share the research I’ve been doing, I could do a table read, go over the music — if we could plant all these seeds, then once the workshop was over, we could continue to grow the seed,” Paulus said. “That was my practical idea. But what happened was this extraordinary emotional bonding, which I never would have anticipated happening.”
Deprived of the ability to mix, physically, in a rehearsal room, the actors and design team faced the formidable challenge of discovering one another and finding level artistic ground from their own homes. “We were learning by doing, acknowledging that this was a grand experiment,” said Paulus, whose Broadway directing credits include the 2013 Tony-winning revival of “Pippin” and the currently closed “Jagged Little Pill.” “Where I might have been in a 20-by-30-foot room, watching a rehearsal, now I was watching everybody in camera close-up: the way their heads change position, emotions bubbling up. It was really powerful.”
Shawna Hamic, cast as Richard Henry Lee, an exuberant Virginia colonist (who sings the buoyant “The Lees of Old Virginia”), thought she would just be saying an extended hello. “My expectations were so low, I thought it was going to be a nice way to see everyone’s faces — sort of a cocktail party,” she said. “But we ended up delving so much deeper than I thought was possible. That anonymity of being online — you’re in your own home and in your safe space — you were able to open up in ways I didn’t expect.”
The interactive exercises that occurred over those two weeks included not only a read-through of the script and individual song practice sessions, but also lectures by historians from Harvard, with which Paulus’s nonprofit theater company is affiliated. Jane Kamensky spoke about the American Revolution, Timothy McCarthy discussed the politics and prose of the Declaration, and Vincent Brown shared his thoughts on the transatlantic slave trade. (One of the musical’s most blistering numbers, “Molasses to Rum,” is sung by a South Carolina colonist, Edward Rutledge, who calls out the North’s hypocrisy for its financial interest in perpetuating slavery.)
And Paulus gave the actors assignments, too. Each had to prepare a five-minute talk on a personal or historical subject of their choosing. “In a sense, we each became a professor,” Hamic observed, “and by doing that, by sharing that, we shared ourselves, we shared our viewpoints. And so it wasn’t just a group blur in the ‘gallery’ view [on Zoom].”
The workshop experience was like entering a hall of mirrors: the story of democracy and nation-building discussed in a most democratic way — as an act of show-building. Or as Lucas-Perry described it: “The launch of a journey that somehow became more purposeful because of the challenge of the situation, and how we were going to overcome the challenge.”
On the workshop’s last day in late April, Paulus recalled, the participants were in tears. The foundation had been laid. When would the architecture rise? That remains unknown.