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A past production. Photo courtesy Odyssey Theatre.

A Virtual Odyssey: Ottawa theatre company shifts to digital programming

By Bruce Burwell on May 19, 2020

For the last 35 years Odyssey Theatre has been performing open-air Commedia dell’arte plays in Strathcona Park. Usually with masks. This year, everyone else in Ottawa is wearing a mask and Odyssey has had to cancel their season. We all know what Alanis would say about that.

In order to keep going, the company has announced an ambitious Virtual Odyssey that rolls out over the rest of the year. It includes an impressive variety of content and media to entertain, educate, and involve theatre fans. There will be live theatre readings, webinars, podcasts, youth workshops, and even mask-making workshops.

Last week I watched their first virtual offering, a Zoom reading of the classic comedy The School For Scandal that should have been performed in Strathcona Park this summer. I had no idea what to expect, but it was very engaging. The actors were clearly a bit unfamiliar with how to perform rapid-fire dialogue with people they couldn’t see, but they made it work.

Zoom reading of The School for Scandal. Photo: Odyssey Theatre.

Apt613 talked to Laurie Steven, Artistic Director of Odyssey Theatre, about their virtual offerings and what the future holds for Odyssey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Do these virtual programs provide employment for the actors that replaces the income that they would have made from the play in the park this summer?

Laurie Steven: We want to keep our theatre going, we just don’t want to close up shop. We want to reach audiences and people that we would normally serve by workshops, like playwrights and actors and young adults as well as the broader public. But a third big priority is to provide work for actors that we would have been working with this summer. It’s a tough time for independent artists who live performance to performance.

Are there a lot of new skills that people need to learn to do the set of programs that you’re tackling?

Well, with the new play reading that we just did, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in. But what I learned was that it’s not just the faces in a Zoom box reading off a script. You have to treat that box like a mini stage. When we do theatre in the park and we do a lot of physical work, there are small movements and large ones. So a large one is where actors run around the stage or site. But we also do small ones. So an actor might do a movement with putting on makeup or writing a letter, something small that requires precise skills, but it’s still a physical game.

And so what you have to do is figure out… what kind of physical games can that head do in that box, and how much of their body can they slip into that box? Can they use props and can they use a scarf and does it make a difference if they lean to one side of the box or to the other side? So the skill that we all needed to learn was to take what we do on stage and pare it down to a way of working within that box and keep it animated.

You are also doing podcasts and webinars. Are those totally new skills for you?

For me, personally, it’s all new. Some of the people, like Andrew Alexander, who’s our audio, video, and film guy, have been involved in these kinds of projects before. So I thought, okay, what could we do for an adult public that they could enjoy? A lot of our work has been inspired by folktales around the world, so I thought we could have tellings of folktales. It’s going to be more theatrical. The writers will write it for a pair of actors: One actor who’s a narrator and does voices, and another one who comes in and does other voices. So you can actually have a little scene involved, and it would be underscored with music. We’re asking writers to find a traditional folktale but set it in a contemporary setting and see what happens. What are the truths that get exploded and what are the ones that stay constant and universal? I think we will have some fun with that and some of those folk tales will be starting points for plays in the future.

Another workshop you’re doing is mask-making? How would that work on video?

It’ll actually be a class you will take via Zoom, maybe 50 participants. Clelia Scala is a mask and puppet maker. She teaches at Queen’s and privately, so I talked to her about the possibility of doing this online. She’s really excited about trying to make that work.

Happier times in Strathcona Park. Photo: Odyssey Theatre.

So in thinking about the future, your assumption is that next summer things have returned to some sort of normality and you’re doing The School for Scandal in Strathcona Park?

Yes. And then The Berlin Blues that would be coming up the following season. That’s a play by Drew Hayden Taylor, who is an Indigenous playwright. We’re doing a Kabuki adaptation of his play. That has been in the works for a couple of years and is ready to go as well.

We don’t know exactly what the situation is going to be like a year from now, but it seemed to me that maybe Odyssey had a slight advantage over other entertainment venues. In terms of physical distancing, if you’re going to do it in a park, you can sit farther away from people. Do you think there’s any advantage to being in the park?

So audience members, yes, you can spread them around, but I would want to be sure that it was a safe place for audiences to come, so they’re not going to sit there worrying about whether they’re going to pick up something. I think we’re all living month by month now and hoping that we can get this under control and that it will be safe for people to come back next summer.

Details on all the upcoming Virtual Odyssey programs can be found here.