Katie Bradley has been immersed in live theater for more than 15 years. But for her latest show, she and her five fellow actors are taking that commitment to a new level. They’re living on the set — because the set for the Theater Mu production of “Today is My Birthday” is each of their homes.
To be clear, this season-opening mainstage show isn’t a Zoom meeting. Rather, Bradley’s Minneapolis home has been transformed into a fully designed, high-tech performance space that allows the show to go on, even as the pandemic continues to preclude large gatherings.
When the packages of equipment started arriving, Bradley said, “initially I was like, ‘This is great, it’s like Christmas.’ And then they kept arriving, and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is serious. This is going to take over my house.’ ”
It wasn’t just the usual costumes and props that showed up at her door, but also lighting and recording equipment, cameras and green screens. These are tools that Equity actors aren’t allowed to touch in a normal production; St. Paul-based Theater Mu has worked hard to set up and run this equipment while following union rules.
“My dining room does not look like my dining room any more,” laughs Bradley. “And right now the very expensive camera in my kitchen is just chilling on one of my tables. You just put the food around the camera and hope that you don’t, you know, hurt the camera.”
Transforming a stage to look like Honolulu, where this show takes place, is basic craft for lighting and set designers. Transforming a Minneapolis home that’s otherwise occupied by two people and two dogs, however, requires some extra creative thinking — how do you keep from tripping on all the cables? Cable ramps. What do you do about the dogs for eight live shows? Bradley’s parents will board them.
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“Today is My Birthday” follows Bradley’s character, Emily: a 29-year-old would-be writer who has returned to Honolulu after failing to “make it” in New York.
Susan Soon He Stanton, a writer and producer for HBO’s “Succession,” wrote this play before the pandemic.
With its themes of loneliness and seeking connection despite isolation, Theater Mu artistic director Lily Tung Crystal says it’s a perfect play for right now.
“All the characters in the show, even when it's produced on stage, are never in a space together. They communicate through phone calls, FaceTime calls, voice messages and a radio show. There's also an intercom exchange. But she and the people around her work to find connection in spite of their isolation,” Crystal says.
Not only are the characters never in the same room, but the actors in this production aren’t all in the same time zone. Bradley and two others are in Minnesota. The other three are in California, including Broadway actor Greg Watanabe and Emily Kuroda of “Gilmore Girls.” The remote production makes their participation possible; flying in and housing actors for weeks for an in-person show would have been cost-prohibitive.
Though separated by half a continent, the actors’ voices will be in each other’s ears for eight nights as they perform live. The streaming producer — who’s working from Tennessee — controls which camera the audience sees at any given time.
“I'm not gonna lie — it's stressful,” says Crystal, “because this is a space that we've never worked in before. It’s nerve-wracking because we don’t know what we don’t know.”
If Crystal decides in the middle of rehearsal that an actor needs a certain prop or costume, for example, it could be a week before it arrives by mail in California.
“Truly, I think this art form is not quite television, in that it's live. And it's not quite theater, in that it's on video. So, it really is its own art form,” says Crystal.
Crystal’s career has spanned TV and theater; she became artistic director of Theater Mu in 2019. Under her direction, the theater jumped into free virtual programming within days of last March’s initial pandemic shutdown.
In keeping with Theater Mu’s mission, they’ve continued to create spaces of “art, equity, and justice from the heart of the Asian American experience.” One of those digital spaces has been a semiregular “Mu-tini Hour” talk-show with theater makers across the country. An April conversation with George Takei, Lea Salonga and Jay Kuo of the Broadway show “Allegiance” drew about 150,000 views.
“I joke that more people saw our work in one night than have seen our work in like five years,” says Crystal. She hopes some of that expanded audience will tune in as “Today is My Birthday” is broadcast online, starting Saturday and continuing through Feb. 21.
Theater is a local construct by nature; sharing a space and an experience is part of the point. But until then, there are silver linings — like actors across the country, guided by just their voices in each other’s ears, working together to create a play about finding connections across the distance.