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WOW Virtual Cabaret

Live performing arts have been among the hardest hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic.  Performing artists all over the world quickly adapted to online performances, but that required acquiring a whole new set of skills, virtually over night.  Ithaca's Walking On Water (WoW) Productions is no exception.  Their entry into the virtual performance arena will be 'A Virtual Cabaret' November 20th and 21st.  The show will be a sort of 'Christmas Carol of WoW' in the sense that it will feature WoW's past, present and future.

"Because it's a celebration of WoW's past present and future, the first half of the show is looking at our past works," says WoW Founder and Producing Artistic Director Priscilla Hummel. "There is a medley from Godspell. Then we have a montage from pieces in the Fantasticks and then a montage of pieces from Katrina. And then after that, we have a section that focuses on the present and that's where we're featuring five creative team members.  And then the last part of the show, we celebrate the future. There will be a performance of two different songs from  one of the musicals we plan to produce next year."

Going virtual without making the performance look like just another Zoom meeting is a challenge.  Hummel says the benefit is that she can work with a larger cast -- 25 cast members versus the 6 to 12 she can normally work with.  The cabaret format also makes it possible to work with actors individually, rather than the usual group rehearsal setting.  But coordinating 25 actors who can't see or hear each other is the challenge.

It starts with Musical Director Benjamin Stevens, who creates backing tracks for each song.  These are emailed to the actors, who use them in Zoom-based rehearsals, and then to record their individual parts for the final product.

"We were able to schedule these individual rehearsals with people," Hummel says. "And then each actor basically got  two rehearsals where we come together on zoom. The actor of course, has to play the music with their device because of the zoom lag. We provided all the materials ahead of time. And then basically it's a lot of self rehearsing. It's really up to the cast members to prepare themselves for the piece. Some people are doing a solo piece and some people are in a group piece, but when we rehearse, it's just on that particular individual's vocal part."

WoW Virtual Cabaret castWoW Virtual Cabaret cast

Once cast members have recorded audio and video files they are returned to Stevens and Hummel.  By recording to the same track, rhythm and key will match when the individual tracks are collated.  Hummel gives notes on things like where to look while creating the video portion.  That way, if a singer is performing at the center of the final video, it can appear that other cast members are looking at that person.  The production team left extra time so that Hummel could give notes for re-shoots when necessary.

All the actor were asked to perform in front of a neutral, light colored background.  Waist or bust shots were requested of all the cast members, so blocking is not something the actor/singers had to do.  Virtual blocking will be done by Mike Carroll, who will be crafting the individual clips into the final performance video.  That will mean arranging chorus clips around a lead singer, for example, adding graphics, and generally crafting a unified cabaret from all the pieces. 

The curtain first went up for WoW three years ago with a production of Godspell, followed last year by The Fantasticks and an original production of Katrina, a new musical that Hummel shepherded through a workshop process before mounting its fully staged premier in August 2019.  Musical numbers from those past productions will be reprised in the first half of the cabaret. 

The 'present' portion will feature five performers.  Anna Marcus-Hecht (KATRINA Orchestrator / Saxophonist) will perform a multi-character piece from a musical she wrote, called 'Time's Apprentice'; Jamie Dye (KATRINA Stage Manager) and Benjamin Stevens  (KATRINA Music Director, respectively) will perform a duet; London McDaniel (KATRINA Bassist / Street Musician / additional original music) will perform a solo guitar piece; and Elias Husiak (KATRINA Assistant Director / Assistant Music Director) will be performing a stand-alone piece by Michael Mott.

As for the future, the 2021 season announcement is tied with the cabaret -- Hummel isn't giving out any details yet.  Two pieces from the 2021 will be performed by Stevens and Natasha Bratkovski.

"We're looking to do two shows," Hummel says. "One will be a virtual production, but instead of a cabaret, it will be an actual musical. It's a small cast musical. And I can't really give any more details yet since we're doing the big reveal during the cabaret. We're hoping that the second one will be a live, in person experience, but hopefully it'll be an outdoor production. That's still in the works. Obviously we still have some T's to cross and I's to dot and we're trying to see what happens in terms of whether theaters will be able to reopen. Outdoor would be probably not as ideal because then you have to deal with rain dates and stuff like that, but that's our tentative plan. We also want to be respectful of the fact that even if things have reopened by next summer, not everyone's going to feel safe enough to go inside the doors of the theater. So we'll make our show more accessible if we can produce it outdoors. So that's what we're looking to do."

Hummel says that virtual performances provides a way to continue connecting with WoW's audience, while providing a way for artists to continue working.  But she is anxious to get back to live theater.

"I would love for us to do another cabaret in the future," she says.  "I could see the benefit of using Zoom for rehearsals -- we might consider doing that. It certainly saves people time and energy and transportation, but I think the performance would thrive better if we were to do that part of it in person. So maybe virtual rehearsals and then, you know, a final run through with everybody in the performance space and a live performance. I think our audiences, while they're grateful to have virtual shows to watch, they really miss the theater a lot."

The Virtual Cabaret will go online Friday, November 20th and 21st at 7:30pm, and will remain online for ticket holders for 48 hours after each day's show begins.  Wow is offering a special price for households, as well as a single person ticket and a 'pay what you can' option.

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