How Do You Put on a Play in a Pandemic? These Creatives Found a Way

With the arts on a halt because of coronavirus, a group of young creatives found a way to make a virtual theater festival possible.
July 15, 2020
Playdate festival official poster. Photo courtesy of Playdate

Talia Light Rake was preparing her senior drama thesis at Kenyon College in Ohio when COVID-19 canceled her plans. Stuck in quarantine in Los Angeles, Light Rake, 22, decided she would find a new way to keep art alive. So, she formed Playdate Theatre. 

“I felt very lost without that theater community, and for Playdate, I just understood we could receive a play, we could provide feedback, and we didn’t necessarily need to be in the same room together in order to create art,” Light Rake told the Journal.

Her father, Jeff Rake, is the showrunner for NBC’s “Manifest”; her mother, Paulette Light, is executive director of the Charles Bronfman Prize; and her aunt is IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous. Using what she learned at school, from her Jewish community and her family, Light Rake developed a conference that brings writers, directors, actors and designers together virtually during the pandemic.

“I am so lucky to have grown up with such a strong Jewish family and community,” she said. “There was always tons of singing and storytelling, big family events and lots of love. With many rabbis in the family, Judaism was ingrained in everything we did.”

The cast and crew of “Hangups” in a virtual rehearsal. From left: Marcus Scribner, Talia Light Rake, Hayley Orrantia, Mark Feuerstein, Sarah Groustra, and Samara Handelsman. Photo courtesy of Playdate

More than 70 up-and-coming screenwriters and playwrights signed up and submitted pieces to the newly formed initiative; writers then were selected for the festival. To help create the festival, Light Rake reached out to her network in the theater, film and television communities. Among those who joined the production team was actor, director and family friend Mark Feuerstein, whom she met at IKAR.

“She’s a pure menschkayt, so when she asked me to act or direct in this project and maybe even produce for this online theater festival, I didn’t even blink,” the “West Wing” and “Baby-Sitters Club” actor told the Journal. “Here she is at 22 … and in her spare time, she organizes a festival … all on her own gumption. She is both inspiring others and me, and filling me with hope for the next generation to find a way to be creative in all situations.”

“I was excited by the fact that we had new and emerging artists who wanted to write. All of our themes explore different relationships that occur in quarantine and isolation.” — Talia Light Rake

With Feuerstein’s help, Light Rake selected six “Screen-Plays” to produce and perform in what is now Playdate’s first virtual theater festival “Find a Way or Make One.” The festival, which begins on July 26, features many seasoned professional actors. Caroline Aaron (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”); Michaela Watkins (“Transparent,” “Saturday Night Live”); Marcus Scribner (“Black-ish”); Wonza Johnson (“Hamilton”); Melinda Page Hamilton (“Mad Men,” “How to Get Away With Murder”); and Ed Weeks (“The Mindy Project”) donated their time to act in the Screen-Plays.

Light Rake also said they reached out to schools and programs around the country, accepting submissions from graduates and current college students so younger playwrights could participate. She said most of the directors and writers are in their 20s. She also wanted a wide range of voices represented, which meant having a cast and crew diverse in race, gender and sexual orientation.

“I was excited by the fact that we had new and emerging artists who wanted to write for Screen-Plays,” she said. “All of our themes explore different relationships that occur in quarantine and isolation. It’s our job to work with each other and create a new, virtual landscape. It’s a very collaborative process.”

“Are You Still?” “Waze,” “Hangups,” “Aut Viam Inveniam Aut Facium,” “You and Me and the Space Between” and “Today I Saw I Bird and Watched You Fly Away With It” are the six selected plays that will be showcased at the festival this summer. All proceeds benefit YWCA’S COVID-19 Relief Fund and Color of Change.

Director of Artistic Operations Samara Handelsman worked with Light Rake at Kenyon and acts as her “right-hand woman,” overseeing logistical decisions during production meetings and rehearsals.

“I’ve done producing before, but this is a whole other level,” the 21-year-old Handelsman said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in the professional world; I’m still a rising senior at Kenyon. That’s been really interesting, figuring out how to communicate with people older, with more experience than you. It’s very reassuring to know that all the skills I’ve been working on in college, it’s the same thing in the real world. The learning curve is just how to expand it.”

Feuerstein said he has been blown away by the level of talent, drive and professionalism from the younger members, including his director on “You and Me and the Space Between,” Ryan Dobrin.

“He’s so excellent. He just graduated college and he has no problem laying into us with notes and ideas that were really great. He had total confidence,” Feuerstein said. “I was really impressed with him. I think he will go on to do great things.”

The cast of “Today I Saw A Bird and Watched You Fly Away With It” during a virtual rehearsal. From left: Wonza Johnson, Talia Light Rake, Owen Thiele, Ben Kaye, Jenna Rossman, Samara Handelsman and Miles Shebar.
Photo courtesy of Playdate

Feuerstein, who is acting, directing and producing in this festival, notes this “film meets theater concept” feels in touch with this moment, where everyone is using Zoom but is new for almost everyone involved. Zoom also allows opportunities for graphic, technical, costume and set designers to experiment with limited objects, spaces, costumes and basic stage tools for each play — for better or for worse.

“Today I Saw a Bird” director Jenna Rossman, 27, said seeing theater in New York come to a complete halt made her think, “People who have established careers, they’re going to be fine … because they have the name that will sell tickets. “[Programs like] fellowships are getting slashed and won’t be the first to get brought back.”

It’s this, she said, that inspired her to be a part of Playdate. “I still have complicated thoughts about Zoom theater but … what is most exciting is that these plays were written for [this] technological platform. The artists that will excel post-coronavirus will be able to be nimble. It felt like a new set of skills versus ‘How do I make “The Merchant of Venice” work on Zoom?’”

Rossman, who directed her first play at age 18, added, “I want to make theater that makes people feel less alone. Props to Talia for having faith in Zoom theater. Talia saw a need to bring people together and she did so really wonderfully.”

Visit the festival website to view performance times. The festival dates are July 26, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9.

CORRECTION: Paulette Light is the Executive Director of the Charles Bronfman Prize not an executive of the Foundation.

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