Jody Hovland has come full circle.
As a co-founder of Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, she envied the guest actors who would say they slept late, put on a pot of coffee, went for a run, took a nap, then came to rehearsals.
Hovland spent plenty of time on Riverside’s stages, too, but not until she had already put in a full day’s work at the theater.
“Midnight Your Time” is now her time. Five years after retiring from the theater she helped bring to life 40 years ago, she’s returning as the star in Riverside’s virtual production, online through one minute before midnight our time Sunday.
It’s a solo show, but she was surrounded with plenty of artistry behind the scenes and behind the camera, immersing her in a strange new world where instead of playing to an audience, she was playing to a camera — on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage. It was filmed on the retooled setting of “The Humans,” a production shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, just days before it was to open.
TCR also opened its Grandon Studio to Riverside, to film “Grounded,” which streamed online in October. “Midnight Your Time” was filmed on the main stage Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, with Rob Merritt capturing the action as it unfolded.
“It’s a beautiful kind of story about the theater community here, all helping each other out, and repurposing this art that unfortunately got lost in the mix here,” said director Adam Knight, 41, of Iowa City. “There was already a kitchen onstage, so we redesigned it, but used the box that was already there as a shooting point.”
Set in 2010 and originally staged in 2011, “Midnight Your Time” was revived in London in 2020, as one of the first plays to live in the virtual realm. The script, by British playwright Adam Brace, is having its Iowa premiere as a fully-realized play, not a staged reading.
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The online format rings true to the script as well as to the isolated times in which we’re living. Riverside’s website describes it as “a play that speaks to this moment where we can be connected like never before — yet still feel so alone.”
A solo show, it’s set up as a series of Skype messages Judy, a retired lawyer living in London, leaves for her daughter, Helen, who is 3,000 miles away, volunteering with an aid organization in a Palestinian conflict zone. The calls are a lifeline Judy needs and Helen no longer wants.
Every scene is a new day, bringing new drama, new costumes and clever tweaks to the items on the stove and kitchen counter.
Hovland, 70, of Iowa City, pivots effortlessly between chatty recaps of her social snubs and her growing frustration with this daughter who is not answering her weekly calls at their agreed-upon time. Judy apparently is alienating everyone around her as she tries to control the volunteer groups she joins, the neighbors she’s meeting, and her silent daughter. Her unanswered messages get angrier and snippier, with a side of guilt trip.
“Judy is somebody that I would call a fixer,” Hovland said. “She thinks, ‘If I just say this or do this, I’ll be able to control the outcome,’ and is constantly thwarted in those attempts.”
“This play centers, in some ways, around a family who devotes a lot of their time to helping — to working especially in countries that the West sees as in need of aid,” Knight said. “One of the ironies of this play is that we’re witnessing a family that itself needs assistance — something has been destroyed and a bridge needs to be made. Both the mother and daughter are so involved in helping problems that are far away from them, that their own problems are bubbling to the surface.”
Miriam Gilbert — a longtime friend of Riverside Theatre, Shakespeare scholar and professor emerita of English at the University of Iowa — introduced Knight and Hovland to the script. Both were smitten with the story, and Knight immediately thought of Hovland for the role.
“She’s just a great actor, a true artist,” Knight said. “It’s tough to describe what great acting does, but Jody makes the roles her own and is continually pushing the form forward. ... She’s incredibly present, so every moment feels earned, it doesn’t feel canned. Every take is different because it’s a new moment, and that’s what great theater does. It captures a moment that is unrepeatable, and that’s what I believe Jody’s art does.”
Hovland jumped right onboard.
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“I found the character deliciously complex,” she said, “and I found her relatable as a mother yearning for connection with a child, who in this case, lives very far away. The mother’s in London and the child is in Palestine, and has announced an intention to remain there five years or more, so the need to communicate is really urgent. There’s just a tremendous desire to sustain a connection over these many miles.
“That gave me something to really dive into in a very present, dramatic way,” she added. “What I loved about the piece was how rangy it was. The 15 movements of it are very distinct and emotionally distinct, and that’s really attractive as a challenge.”
That was just the beginning of the challenges in mounting this production.
As stage actors and directors, Knight and Hovland spent about five weeks rehearsing a show that would bring them to a new performance realm. They held their early rehearsals physically distanced on Hovland’s screened porch — a setting that hearkens to Riverside’s early days when rehearsals were held at the home of Hovland and husband Ron Clark, who co-founded the troupe with Bruce Wheaton in 1981.
About a month later, when it started getting chilly outside, actor and director began Zooming their rehearsals, which gave them the aha moment they needed.
“All of a sudden, that answered so many questions,” Knight said, “because this is our stage.”
Unlike a movement on a conventional live stage setting, a shift in posture in front of a camera could bring Hovland’s face to an almost distorted perspective.
“It informed us a lot, of the importance of what happens when you bring a glass up; what is the gesture here; is there a moment to get up,” Knight said. “Embracing the limitations of this vantage point told us a lot about how to tell the story.”
Hovland, a veteran of several solo shows for the stage, said “panic” is the first step in approaching such a task, followed by all the learning that goes into the process. And this production had an extra layer of learning.
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“I’ve never done anything like this,” she said of working entirely in front of a camera.
“With a solo show for the stage, you have the energy of the audience as your acting partner,” she said. “And I will say that in spite of the fact that my audience, my imagined daughter, was simply the camera, the energy of the collaborators to this piece — the director, the designers, the technical director — was very present for me. They were such a calming and engaged audience on the other side of that camera, so they did provide an environment for me that was really positive and made everything seem possible.
“I learned a tremendous amount. I’m not a film actor, and apart from some occasional commercial projects and some student video work, I had never done anything like this. It was really thrilling to be thrust into something so new and so invigorating,” she said. “It felt like a tightrope walk. It was scary in the best possible way, because it helped me grow as an actor. To be at this point in my career really feel that kind of excitement was really thrilling and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
If you watch
• What: Riverside Theatre’s Virtual Stories Series: “Midnight Your Time,” starring Riverside co-founder Jody Hovland
• When: Streaming online through 11:59 p.m. Sunday (11/22)
• Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students at Riversidetheatre.org/midnight-your-time
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