But backstage on a frigid February afternoon, down the hall from the warmly lit dressing rooms and a spare space used for coronavirus testing, a cast and crew of some two-dozen people were back to work on the musical “Midnight at the Never Get,” the third production of Signature’s all-digital 2021 season.
Stripped of its audience seating, the intimate Max theater — which ordinarily accommodates 199 to 250 theatergoers — felt startlingly vast. Four cameras were pointed at the sparse set, consisting of a piano and some nightclub tables. An area nicknamed “video village” — a mishmash of folding desks, water bottles and myriad screens — occupied the theater’s back corner. Jugs of hand sanitizer were readily available, and everyone except the actors and musicians was masked.
Before declaring “action” on the day’s shoot, director Matthew Gardiner acknowledged a cautious comfort. “If this were our first show,” he said, “there would have been a lot more anxious faces.” In an interview a few weeks later, Gardiner elaborates:
“As you start to get your legs in this world, you learn how to be artistic wearing a mask, and you learn how to be artistic standing six feet away from each other,” says the theater veteran, whose experience on screen was, until recently, limited to film classes in college. “It is starting to feel like there is a world in which we can create under these parameters.”
Signature’s streaming season represents not only an audacious investment in digital programming, but also a high-pressure creative endeavor for the Tony-winning Arlington institution after founding artistic director Eric Schaeffer stepped down last year amid allegations of sexual assault. As the theater continues a nationwide search for his replacement, associate artistic director Gardiner has stepped into the leadership role on an interim basis, and unequivocally tethered his tenure to Signature’s on-demand offerings.
“I take this opportunity very seriously,” Gardiner says. “I’m certainly not in the position of artistic director yet, but in the interim, as Signature pursues this moment of really deciding what the future of the artistic leadership looks like, I feel very lucky to show what I imagine Signature could look like in the future.”
After opening the season in February with the Gardiner-directed revue “Simply Sondheim,” Signature last month released Daniel J. Watts’s spoken-word show “The Jam: Only Child.” This summer, the theater will present the Duke Ellington-inspired musical “After Midnight,” starring “Hamilton’s” Christopher Jackson, and the Dominique Morisseau drama “Detroit ’67.”
But up next is “Midnight at the Never Get,” which starts streaming Friday. A forlorn, 1960s-set love story about a cabaret crooner (played by Sam Bolen, who co-conceived the show) and his pianist partner (Christian Douglas) at an underground Greenwich Village nightclub, the fever dream of a show premiered in New York in 2016 and was set for an off-Broadway revival this past summer.
Gardiner says rehearsals for this filmed production were not particularly different from how they would have been for a traditional staging, aside from protocols such as mask mandates and coronavirus testing every other day. Signature then scheduled three days of filming for “Midnight at the Never Get,” with each session capturing a minimally interrupted run-through of the musical, plus some pickup shots to wrap up the final day. Although Gardiner took a piecemeal approach to shooting “Simply Sondheim,” he felt the narrative cohesion of “Midnight at the Never Get” would be better served by filming the musical in its entirety.
“It’s so nice to get the continuity of it,” Bolen says. “The show is such a train — it leaves the station and just goes and goes and it tumbles forward, and it ends in a place that is very emotional. It is definitely easier to get there in an authentic way when you can do it over time and sort of let the whole story build up.”
Although the show’s playwright and composer, Mark Sonnenblick, sat in on an early run-through via Zoom, he mostly contributed subtle changes to account for the audience void, since Bolen’s character typically banters with theatergoers.
“The adjustments — there weren’t very many,” Sonnenblick says. “But most of them were just like, ‘Oh, let’s take out some of the direct references to talking to the audience members.’ ”
Director of photography Justin Chiet says the trickiest part of his job was ensuring that none of the cameras ended up in another’s shots. Considering Gardiner’s preference for filming full run-throughs, Chiet relied on camera operators with experience in live events — including weddings, concerts and sports — and a knack for making savvy decisions on the fly.
A detailed filming plan was outlined as Chiet and his team observed four days of technical rehearsals, during which the crew tested elements such as lighting and sound effects on set. Sketched to a blueprint of the theater, the plan was presented on paper as an intricately crafted collage of numbers (marking each run-through), letters (representing each camera) and arrows (depicting each camera angle).
“Someone related it to football plays,” says Chiet, who began working with Signature on promotional videos and has shot each of the theater’s digital productions. “We only have so much space, but we want to get multiple shots and we have all these different ways of doing it.”
On the second day of filming, the roughly 90-minute show was captured with just six cuts. One came early, when Chiet realized a stray, anachronistic microphone wire was visible on-screen. A prop malfunction and a flubbed line led to two interruptions. Two more were planned, for the show’s intermission and a break to swap out the cameras’ memory cards. And the last one was arranged around the introduction of veteran Signature actor Bobby Smith as a third character, late in the show.
All the while, Chiet kept his eyes glued to the monitors, convening with Gardiner and communicating instructions to his camera operators as he tapped his toes and swayed to Sonnenblick’s silky score.
“The thought of staying still? I would be crawling out of my skin with that much passion and music,” says Chiet, himself a percussionist who likes to mark the end of production with a stint on the drums.
To the actors, the fluctuating camera setup presented its own challenges. “Just yesterday, the camera was below my eye line,” Bolen told a crew member during one break from filming. “But today, it’s right in my eye line. So I keep having to go, ‘Don’t look right at it!’ ”
For all of the footage that ended up at Gardiner’s disposal, he found himself leaning on shots from a single run-through when cutting together the show with his brother, James, the production’s editor and associate producer.
“I am constantly being reminded that it would be normal in the film world to jump between various cuts to get the exact thing you want,” Gardiner says. “But I think there is an element of it for me that I will always be a theater director who wants the continuity of the one take, the one moment.”
Gardiner, though, grudgingly acknowledges that Signature is making films, not theater. When the second day of production concluded, and the cast and crew packed up amid fist bumps and elbow taps, Smith summed up the nebulous nature of the endeavor with a cheeky query.
“Is that,” he said before pausing, “what we call ‘a wrap’?”
Midnight at the Never Get
Signature Theatre. sigtheatre.org.
Dates: Through June 21.