Since people can’t come to Mirrorbox Theatre right now, Mirrorbox Theatre is coming to the people.
And if this new community-building experiment proves popular, it might just become a regular feature for the small professional theater company whose home base is the 60-seat first-floor C Space at CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids.
Out the Box, which premiered March 20, is a Friday night play-reading series reflecting the Mirrorbox mission of showcasing contemporary works coming to Iowa for the first time. Part of the new virtual reality springing from COVID-19 safety protocols, the playing-reading series is being livestreamed via Zoom, and all of the actors are joining in from their homes.
The kicker: Each show only is open to 100 viewers in real time, and it won’t be posted online for later viewing. Admission is free, but donations are accepted to help cover production costs, including honoraria for the actors and royalty fees for the playwrights.
Founder Cavan Hallman, 41, of Cedar Rapids, will continue to donate his time to all the various facets of Mirrorbox Theatre, including this new virtual venture.
“We want it to align as much as possible with the work we’re doing in-person,” he said. “I really believe theater is something that exists in real time, so the readings are not recorded for future use. If you want to experience it, you have to be in the virtual room as it’s happening.
“Additionally, one of the things I value about theater is this idea that we’re coming together not only in real time, but for a short period of time, as this micro community. In order to preserve that, our performances are being offered free to the public,” he said, adding that a link for donations will be visible on-screen during the curtain speech and at intermission.
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“We are soliciting donations, while at the same time, making it available to people for whom that is not an option,” he said. “We’re very understanding of the fact that the social distancing measures have had a big impact on a lot of people’s ability to make a living, and we want to be a place where people know that they can come.”
“We were really fortunate at our first iteration of this, that we did receive enough donations to cover the cost of that event,” he said. “We’re hoping that this will be a self-sustaining venture. We received some very generous donations, including from some people out of state who have never been to a Mirrorbox Theatre production live in Cedar Rapids, so the support has been pretty incredible.”
While donations aren’t required, reservations are.
“We have a maximum of 100 registrations right now for any of these readings. It’s not being broadcast to a general audience, whether that’s via Facebook or YouTube. It is just this limited community here in this moment,” Hallman said.
“Part of the hope is that our audiences are committing to spending that period of time with us. It’s not like a TV show that you might click away from during the commercials,” he said. “We’re really hoping that people are going to embrace the chance to dive all the way into these exciting, contemporary scripts and be there with us from the beginning to the end.”
The first offering was Hallman’s own play, “Ghost Light,” starring local actors Aaron Murphy, Jo Jordan, Matthew James and Lauren Galliart, along with Hallman’s longtime friend and collaborator, Mike Spara, who is based in New York City.
Now jumping into its third season, Mirrorbox started using outside guests during its second season, and is eager to continue offering those opportunities with the play readings and when plays resume on stage.
“One of the things about this program that really excites me is that in some ways, it’s an extension of what we started to do in Season 2,” he said. Mirrorbox brought in Stephanie Shaw from Chicago to direct “Future Thinking” and Ellie Desautels to play the lead role of Nut in “Orange Julius.” Desautels is best-known for playing Michael Hallowell, a transgender teenage boy, in NBC’s “Rise.”
By combining technology and the new format for the Out the Box series, Hallman said: “We’re able to not only provide (performance) opportunities for local artists, but to also provide opportunities for local artists to engage with the outside artists and the outside professionals, with the hope that those experiences are fruitful and invigorating for everyone involved.
“It also lets the outside world and these artists come to understand how much talent and how many really dedicated and experienced people we have in our community.”
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The second Out the Box reading was “The Canopic Jar of My Sins,” an eco-play in which the inventor of plastic is put on trial for creating a substance that’s poisoned the planet. Playwright Justin Maxwell was Hallman’s major grad school professor, and joined in a post-show discussion with the viewing audience. Hallman plans to include a talkback with the featured playwright whenever possible.
For this coming Friday, Hallman and company will read “Caught,” by Sharon E. Cooper. The description reads: “With Hurricane Sandy looming, two sets of siblings, friends since childhood, struggle to keep up with the secrets that are unraveling before their eyes.”
In the inaugural production, Hallman served as host, introducing the cast, making announcements, reading the stage directions and leading a Q&A period afterward. But all that proved to be a little too much, so he’s having others read the stage directions, setting the scene for viewers.
For “the Canopic Jar of My Sins,” Mirrorbox actress Angelica Fink, a theater student at the University of Northern Iowa, stepped into that reader role. In addition, Hallman always can turn to his wife, Katie, to read the stage directions. She’s the executive director at Theatre Cedar Rapids, and “knows a thing or two about theater,” he said.
While lots of Corridor theaters have been starting their shows at 7:30 p.m. in recent years, the Hallmans chose 8 p.m. for a reason — when their 19-month-old son will be fast asleep.
Their performance space is their home office, and likewise, the actors are participating from their homes.
“We’re all making it work with the space that we have,” Hallman said.
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