CORONAVIRUS

Mirrorbox Theatre expanding virtual play readings in 2021

This is director Cavan Hallman's view of #x201c;The Violet Sisters,#x201d; the Sept. 4 offering in Mirrorbox Theatre's O
This is director Cavan Hallman’s view of “The Violet Sisters,” the Sept. 4 offering in Mirrorbox Theatre’s Out the Box play reading series, allowing him to see the script as well as the actors. They are (from the top row) Jessica Link and Carrie Pozdol, both of Cedar Rapids, and Heather Chrisler of Chicago. Hallman, of Cedar Rapids, founded Mirrorbox Theatre in 2018 to present “Iowa-premiere plays as dramatic reflections on contemporary culture.” Out the Box moved Mirrorbox to an online format during the pandemic, presenting 32 readings, beginning with “Ghost Light” on March 20. The 2021 series will feature 40 free livestreamed play readings. (Cavan Hallman)
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A week after the pandemic shut down public outings in Eastern Iowa, Cavan Hallman, founder of Mirrorbox Theatre in Cedar Rapids, was setting the stage for a dramatic theatrical twist: livestreamed readings of new plays never before heard in Iowa.

After 32 plays featuring actors from the local scene, as well as stage and screen from coast to coast, he’s bumping up the number to 40 in the 2021 season.

The new series launches at 8 p.m. Friday with “The Care and Feeding of Small Animals,” by Brooke-Erin Smith. The synopsis states: “At the end of the world, two genetically engineered children are entrusted with the survival of the human race. Held in a restricted campus, they grapple with their extreme responsibility while testing the boundaries of what they are and are not permitted to do as saviors of the world.”

“We’re going to highlight a diverse range of voices, both from emerging and established artists, who are trying to push the boundaries of what we’re discussing with the subject and formats for contemporary theater,” Hallman said at the end of December. “And that would be more thematic and kind of idealized. On a more practical level, our plan is to present 40 free readings on Friday nights throughout the next year.”

Viewing will continue to be free, with a link for donations to help cover production costs. Preregistration is required on the theater’s website, mirrorboxtheatre.com/out-the-box/

In keeping with the intimacy created when Mirrorbox presents plays for about 60 people each night in the CSPS Hall’s black box theater, each Out the Box show is limited to 100 registrations, available only in real time on the dedicated link — not via social media or YouTube.

“It is just this limited community here in this moment,” Hallman said in March, when announcing the series.

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The community, however is far from limited to the Corridor. The first season drew 2,000 registrations from across the country, as well as from Turkey, Greece, Canada, the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.

Donations from viewers as well as individual donors have defrayed the costs of paying the playwrights for production rights, as well as stipends to the performers and crew. A grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation will help fund the new season.

Learning curve

Hallman, 41, has embraced the inevitable learning curve since the initial 2020 readings.

“One of the things that I learned and it’s really a lesson that echoes things learned from Mirrorbox in year one: I directed all of the plays, and then in our second year, split that between myself and guest directors,” he said. “I just continue to find that expanding our net, working with artists in different capacities — bringing on outside artists, outside eyes, outside points of view — it just always elevates the work. Having multiple voices creating the art, multiple perspectives, is really a crucial tool for elevating the work we do.”

The 2020 programming involved 160 performers, beginning with “The Democratic Field,” a mix of theatrical “table read,” social research project and civic intervention, then continuing with Out the Box livestreams and the premiere of “The Parking Lot,” playwright Adam Szymkowicz’s response to the pandemic. The latter was a fully staged two-person show presented in the parking lot behind CSPS Hall, with audience members remaining inside their vehicle, reminiscent of drive-in movies.

Among the first season’s high-profile artists are Ellie Desautels, a nonbinary actor who portrayed a transgender teenage boy in NBC’s “Rise,” and William Jackson Harper, from the NBC comedy “The Good Place.”

Presentational style

Using a play reading format rather than fully staged plays online serves a dual purpose.

Artistically, the idea grew from Hallman’s friend and mentor, Stephanie Shaw, who directed the Mirrorbox play “Future Thinking” at CSPS in June 2019.

“She was an early member of this Chicago group, the Neo-Futurists, and an aesthetic lesson that I learned from her and from them, is this idea of acknowledging where you are,” he said. “They always perform with the understanding that they are performers in this space, sharing this space with this audience — we are nothing other than what we are in a sense. I really appreciate bringing that aesthetic into these readings, because it is not a substitute for a fully realized live production. It is not a fully realized live production.

“So rather than pretending that it is something that it is not, or trying to imitate something that it can’t be, it ultimately gets to exist as its own art object in its own form. ...

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Logistically, in order to comply with recent agreements from SAG-AFTRA and Equity unions, organizations like Mirrorbox Theatre can’t use costumes, sets or props when working with the union members.

“It really has to be a reading in that sense,” Hallman said.

Collaborations

He mined his connections from years working with performance groups in New Orleans, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and beyond, to find actors, playwrights and plays to engage. Word-of-mouth spread among the production community, boosted by 21 mentions from Time Out New York’s weekly listings of the best in streaming theater options.

“It’s really one of the major arts and culture national publications,” Hallman said. “To get that kind of recognition just really speaks to the work that Mirrorbox is doing. That was a really special one.

“And directly, because of Out the Box, we had the opportunity to partner with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater based in New York, which is another hub for creativity and for the development of new plays.” he noted. “It also brought about an opportunity to partner with the Scranton Shakespeare Festival on their new play festival, and we’re also currently in talks with a college, to hopefully be the home for their nationwide new-play contest.

“Theater is by nature this collaborative environment and the fact that this work not only allows us to collaborate with so many new artists, but it’s also inspired these new institutional collaborations is something that we can really be proud of.”

Looking ahead

Even when audiences can again gather in performance venues to witness live theater, Hallman plans to continue offering virtual programming.

The advantage is “accessibility, both locally and nationwide,” he said. “The fact that donations and sponsorships have supported this free program really means that as long as you have a phone or a computer, you can experience exciting contemporary theater, so that accessibility is really important.

“It’s important for accessibility, it’s important for visibility. It continues to allow our local artists to share their craft, share their work with people in this community and beyond.

“It also helps for the visibility of Cedar Rapids as an artistic, thriving community. These people who are watching from Canada, from Greece, from Turkey, they’re tuning in and, yes, they’ve maybe been drawn in by a familiar name that they know from Broadway or the screen (but) they’re seeing those people in collaboration with our local Iowa artists. And I think that solidifying the reputation that we already have as an artistic hub, but blasting that news to the world, is really worthwhile.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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