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Zoom Theater: How to Produce a Play on Zoom

Shyna Antwi is an Austin-bases actor and writer. She uses her blog, Acting Courage, to explore acting and personal development.

Across the world, millions of people have had to adapt their lives and work in response to the pandemic.

As actors, performers, and creative producers, we also have to adapt to the changing world.

Zoom has become the most popular platform for communication and connection to cope with social distancing mandates.

And it’s a great option for us to continue to do what we love.

This month, I participated in a virtual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In this article, I’ll share the technical tips I learned from my directors and producers and the insights I gained from my experience.

Helpful Zoom Features

Schedule Recurring Meetings

Use Zoom’s built-in scheduling function to plan ahead for rehearsals and meetings.

These recurring meetings can be scheduled in daily, weekly, or monthly intervals.

Each of these meetings will have identical start times, end times, meeting IDs, and settings.

Setting-up these meetings is a great way to establish a routine for all participants.

To host a meeting longer than 40 minutes, the host must upgrade to a paid Zoom account. This is not required for participants, who can join extended sessions for free.

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To schedule a recurring meeting, click the ‘Schedule’ button on the Zoom homepage. Then, simply check the ‘Recurring Meeting’ box (highlighted yellow in the picture above) when you schedule your first meeting.

After scheduling your meetings, Zoom will give you a Meeting ID that participants can use to join every meeting.

You can also send a link via email or text that participants can use to enter meetings.

Gallery View & Hide Non-video Participants

Start rehearsals by instructing all participants to turn on gallery view. From this display, actors can enable audio and video to enter “on stage” and disable audio and video to exit.

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BUT, to make these entrances and exits work, the host must make participants with disabled videos invisible.

This can be done using the ‘Hide Non-video Participants’ feature (highlighted below). This feature will hide profile pictures and names of participants who have turned off their videos. Only performers with enabled videos will be visible on-screen.

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Find this feature by clicking the settings icon in the top right-hand corner of the home page. A ‘Settings’ pop-up should appear. Click ‘Video’ on the sidebar menu. Finally, check the box next to ‘Hide non-video participants’.

The dreaded Mute/Unmute Button

This may seem extremely simple, but the trickiest aspect of my Zoom experience has been remembering to unmute myself before speaking.

When you enter a scene, you have to remember that there are two buttons that enable your remote performance.

You must turn on your video AND unmute yourself. Then, the stage is yours.

Arrange Position of Video Displays

This is a hidden Zoom feature that can be invaluable for acting and reacting to other actors through Zoom.

You can customize video layout by having participants enter the scene in a certain order. The first actor to turn on their camera will be in box one, the second actor in the second box, and so on.

The boxes are filled, first, from left to right, and, secondly, from the top of the screen to the bottom. Here is an example in which the numbers represent the order of participant entrance:

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Using this technique enables performers to understand how the audience sees them.

BUT, this arrangement will be skewed for the participants themselves. The people coordinating the display arrangement must have their video stopped, so they can see what the audience will see.

You can take advantage of this feature by planning the order of entry for each participant in a given scene.

Alternatively, coordinators and directors who are offscreen can send messages to actors during rehearsals and performances to explain their position on-screen.

With the knowledge of their relative positions, actors can enhance the performance by facing each other, reacting towards other characters, and “handing-off” objects to one another.

Zoom Breakout Rooms

Zoom breakout rooms can be especially useful for practicing several different pieces of the play at the same time.

For example, during rehearsals for my performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we had several breakout sessions. The first breakout room would host the actors playing Hippolyta, Thesus, and Egeus; the second would host Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander; the third would host the rude mechanicals and so on.

To use this feature, the meeting host must click the ‘Breakout Rooms’ button on the menu bar at the bottom of their screen.

After clicking this button, a window titled ‘Create Breakout Rooms’ (pictured below) will open.

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Select ‘Manually’ if you want to assign certain participants to certain rooms. This is a great option if you want each room to work on a particular part of the play.

Select ‘Automatically’ if you want Zoom to evenly assign participants to the rooms you create. This option is great for generalized group work.

Change Display Names

To help the audience and other performers follow the performance on this new platform, you can replace the actor’s names in the Zoom display boxes with the names of their characters.

To change your display name, click the button labeled ‘Participants’ on the toolbar at the bottom of your screen. Once ‘Participants’ is clicked, a list of meeting participants will appear on the right-hand side of your screen.

Find your name on this list of participants, and hover over it with your cursor. To the right of your name, you will find two buttons labeled ‘Mute’ and ‘Rename’.

NOTE: There may be a ‘More’ button in place of the ‘Rename’ button. If you see the ‘More’ button on your display, click it. ‘Rename’ will appear as an option under ‘More’.

Click the ‘Rename’ button. A ‘Rename’ window (like the one pictured below) will appear.

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Use the text box under ‘Enter a new screen name:’ to enter the name of your character.

You can change this name throughout your meetings and performances.

Hide Self-View

Many actors (myself included) are opposed to performing in mirrors. These individuals may be put off by the fact that they can see themselves performing over Zoom.

The “Hide Self View” feature is an easy fix for this. This feature will prevent a given participant from seeing themselves while allowing other participants and viewers to continue seeing them.

If you use this feature, make sure you have a good understanding of your camera view and performance space. You want to make sure you don’t move out of camera view.

Acting Through Zoom

Stand (if you can)

Standing up during your zoom performance can be very helpful for participants who are spatially and technologically capable.

Standing will allow you to feel the lines in your body. Even if your viewers can only see the top half of your torso, using your whole body to perform will help bring you into the moment you are portraying.

Get Comfortable

Make sure to include introductions and warm-ups in rehearsals. These are especially important in this new venue.

This medium will be new to many performers. It’s important to make this a comfortable space for exploration and expression.

Emphasize Connection

It’s easy to feel like you’re delivering a series of monologues while performing on this platform.

Remember to really connect with other performers as your characters interact. Share the moments you have on-screen together. Keep your eyes and ears open to what other characters are doing, and act accordingly.

Use Every Pixel of that Box

If nothing happens in your Zoom boxes, the audience will get bored. Grab the audience’s attention and make the most of this platform with creative use of your box.

Here are a few ideas:

Set Your Stage

Encourage actors to use anything they have available to set a scene for their characters.

For our production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, we used fairy lights, plastic plants, real plants, flashlights, toy dogs, table cloths, backdrops, baskets, blankets, and a compound bow to set our scenes.

You can also use digital features on Zoom to help create a setting. For one, Zoom allows you to set virtual backgrounds. Zoom provides five pre-downloaded background images and allows users to download images and videos to use as background. Click Here to get detailed instructions on using Zoom virtual backgrounds.

Other virtual applications, like Snap Camera, allow you to overlay virtual filters and stickers on your video display. This application allows users to bring the effects of the Snapchat phone app to their computers. Here is a video on how to use the Snap Camera app on Zoom:

I recommend minimal use of Zoom virtual backgrounds and filters. They are fun to play around with, but they can distract from the performance. For our show, we played with the Snap camera app and used it as inspiration for our props and costumes.

For example, the actors playing fairies liked the Snap Camera confetti filter, so they threw real confetti in the final scene of the play.

Dress Your Character

Encourage actors to put together costumes that fit their characters.

These costumes should distinguish individual characters, but also be similar enough to anchor all characters in the same story world.

For our Midsummer performance, we presented the world of Athenian royalty and fairy magic in modern stylings because that is what we had on hand.

It worked out beautifully. The royals were majestic. The fairies were colorful. And the rude mechanicals were pitiful…as they should have been!

Understand and Use Your Scale

Changes in the number of boxes on-screen have a dramatic effect on Zoom. For example, the visual of 15 participants on-screen is very different from the visual of 2 participants on-screen.

If fewer boxes are displayed on the screen, actors will have increased attention from the viewer, and smaller details of their display will be easier to see. This gives actors freedom to back away from their cameras and show more of their bodies and backdrops.

If several boxes are displayed on the screen, actors should get closer to their cameras and focus more on reacting to others present in the scene.

Magic Hand-offs

Once you figure out how to arrange the order of your participant Zoom boxes (this is covered in the section above “Arrange Position of Video Displays”), you can have characters pass objects to each other between boxes.

To prepare for this stunt, tell participating actors where they are relative to each other, and make sure they pass objects that are identical or relatively similar to each other.

To perform this stunt, start by having ‘Actor A’ hold their object within camera view, while ‘Actor B’ keeps their object outside of camera view. ‘Actor A’ should pass the object in the general direction ‘Actor B’. As the object vanishes from the camera view of ‘Actor A,’ ‘Actor B’ should pull their object into camera view from the general direction of ‘Actor A’.

The audience really gets a kick out of this one!

Pre-recording Sound

It can be difficult to coordinate collective sounds between individual performers over zoom. Using pre-recorded sound from phones or computers is one way to overcome this obstacle.

The recording can be done by the performers and used to simplify aspects of the performance. For example, before our Midsummer performance, we recorded a guitar strum that was played when characters woke up during a scene (this happens a lot in Midsummer).

You can also use pre-recorded sound to create effects that performers cannot do organically. During our performance, we used cricket sounds that we found online to enhance a character’s bad joke.

The sound quality is best if the recording is played by the last person who spoke on Zoom.

One-on-One Meetings

Directors can still take time to meet individually with actors.

To prepare for our performance, directors organized individual Zoom meetings outside of rehearsals to answer questions, discuss language, and help actors define characters.

Performing Through Zoom

Of course, the end goal of this process is to perform for an audience.

Reach your audience by pairing the power of Zoom with social and streaming platforms.

Facebook and YouTube Live

Zoom allows you to stream meetings and webinars to Facebook and YouTube live during the performance.

Viewers can comment on the performance in real-time on both platforms.

Live streaming will end either when the meeting ends or when the Zoom host selects the stop streaming button.

A recording of the performance will be saved on your Facebook page or YouTube channel after the live performance is finished.

Get an in-depth explanation of how to stream your Zoom performance on Facebook Live here. For a detailed explanation of how to stream your Zoom performance on YouTube Live click here.

Zoom Webinar

If you want every aspect of the performance to stay on one platform, you can use Zoom Video Webinar. This program allows you to invite view-only attendees to the performance.

The program distinguishes between participants and attendees. Participants can turn on their videos, unmute themselves, and communicate amongst themselves without alerting attendees. The view-only restriction for attendees prevents them from injecting themselves into the performance.

Unlike Facebook and YouTube streaming, the Zoom Webinar audience (also known as the attendees) cannot comment during the performance. Depending on your goals, this could be a positive or a negative. In my experience, having the audience interact in this new way (that isn’t possible during traditional live performances) makes the show even more fun and engaging.

Find more information on Zoom’s Webinar platform here.

You can also use a combination of these strategies. For example, you can host your performance on Zoom Webinar and stream the webinar on Facebook and YouTube at the same time.

Get Excited!

Although the world is beginning to open up again, this new medium has a lot of potential for bringing together performers from all over to create mutual experiences.

Last year, I started using programs like Zoom before they became a necessity. That experience allowed me to appreciate their potential for creative performance.

I was able to interact with actors from three different continents. I performed Romeo and Juliet with performers in France, Julius Caesar with performers in China, and As You Like It with performers in Ecuador.

Technology isn’t a barrier to creativity. It’s an additional outlet. Use this time to create like you never have before.

Tell me about the Zoom performance you want to produce in the comment section below.

Stay Tuned – Shyna Antwi