Almost 700 years later, in the throes of another pandemic, Synetic Theater is turning “The Decameron” into a designed-for-digital production. More than 30 Synetic-affiliated artists, including alumni, have been working remotely on the project, which will begin streaming on June 10 with pay-what-you-can tickets. Paralleling Boccaccio’s framing device, which depicts 10 days of storytelling, Synetic’s plan is to release 30-odd stories, adapted from Boccaccio’s originals, in batches through June 19. The entire collection will remain available online through the end of June at least.
The project has allowed Synetic artists to stay creatively active even as in-person theatergoing remains a no-go. “There’s no way anything can replace live performance,” says Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s founding artistic director. “But to stay creative — it’s possible in every time, in every situation.”
Adapting classic texts has been a hallmark of the movement-focused theater. Given the timely framing of “The Decameron,” the choice was “a no-brainer,” according to Tsikurishvili, who spoke, like most of those interviewed for this story, via Google Meet.
Company leaders invited artists to choose stories, freely adapt them in spoken or wordless versions using Synetic’s signature physical-theater techniques, and perform, record and edit the works as circumstances allowed. “We said from the get-go, ‘We don’t want you to go out and buy costumes. We don’t want you to go out and buy film equipment,’ ” says J.P. McLaurin, Synetic’s associate producer. “We’re really trying to say, ‘What do you have in your closet?’ ”
Guidelines sent to contributors in early April included simple requests: produce landscape-oriented footage in HD; avoid clothing with large logos; and incorporate royalty-free music and sound. (The archive of Synetic’s resident composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, was made available.) Solo performances were encouraged.
Some artists already had screen expertise. Katherine DuBois, Synetic’s company director, is also a filmmaker whose credits include the astronaut-themed documentary “Space to Explore.” Isolating in her Silver Spring home, she didn’t have access to the camera and editing services to which she’s accustomed but was able to make do using commercially available software as she adapted a “Decameron” story about the mishap-riddled travels of a sultan’s daughter. Scenic design also required ingenuity: DuBois turned a chair, couch and shower curtain into a boat.
Husband-and wife Dallas and Tori Tolentino, both Synetic veterans, had been living in Italy while Tori attended graduate school in Milan, when that country became a virus hotspot. While waiting out lockdown with their Chihuahua mix, the Tolentinos decided to adapt a tale about a man’s dream — prophetic to the coronavirus pandemic, as it turns out — in which a wolf attacks his heedless wife. According to Dallas, the narrative was a “correlation to what’s happening right now, warning people to stay safe, and people not listening.”
Dallas, who had been studying filmmaking, used his equipment to capture scenes performed with his wife. Rigging furniture allowed overhead shots; a GoPro submerged in a sink full of water helped conjure drowning; and the spouses edited on Final Cut Pro.
Not all contributors had access to such specialized gear. “I’m not a filmmaker,” says Elena Velasco, a directing- and choreography-focused Synetic company member who used an Android phone and iMovie software to create her adaptation. While sheltering in Alexandria with five of her children, who sometimes helped film, Velasco riffed on Boccaccio’s yarn about a friar who bamboozles people with fake relics. Taking inspiration from current events, she says, she turned the story into a dystopian meditation on “the repercussions of following a false leader.” Playing around with lighting and framing helped her find her way into the story: A lightbulb, projecting upward from the floor, helped create an eerie mood, she discovered. “A lot of it has been a very DIY kind of process,” Velasco says, although her directing experience gave her a head start.
No one worked entirely in isolation. Contributors were assigned mentors: Synetic veterans who offered tips and perspective. DuBois says one of her mentees was a mother, anxious about escaping from her rambunctious kids for long enough to work. DuBois wondered if escape was necessary.
“ ‘Maybe your kids are climbing all over you, and this is a part of the backdrop, the texture of your film piece,’ ” DuBois told her protege. “We really just have to embrace the honesty of the reality that we’re in. I think ultimately that’s going to be the most relatable to our audience.”
Dates: Stories will be posted in installments June 10-19, and will remain online at least through the end of June.
Prices: Pay-what-you-can tickets start at $10.