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Theater Preview: Short North Stage Returns With Digital ‘John & Jen’

Every piece of our lives changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Theater and performance art, which depends on a circuit of energy, a connection of being in the same room at the same time, suddenly screeched to a halt. For the last few months, theatrical troupes have mulled over “What’s next?” 

Many of those answers involve archived footage of previous shows. Some artists are turning out amazing work within the limitations of video chat software like Zoom. Short North Stage, who had to pre-emptively end their hit Young Frankenstein run, returns with a fully-staged and filmed production of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s Off-Broadway breakthrough John & Jen, directed by Edward Carignan and starring two familiar faces to SNS, Dionysia Williams and Hunter Minor.

I caught up with Carignan by phone to discuss this new chapter for the theater.

“There’s some response to this pandemic in the theater world that has been sort of defeated. ‘We can’t do anything. It’s not possible. There’s no way to make this happen,’” Carignan says. “It’s been pushing against that because, as theater makers, we are always challenged to innovate, and this pandemic has created maybe one of the largest opportunities for that.”

He sees the success some makers are having with Zoom as wonderful.

“I applaud any effort to still produce any kind of art during this pandemic,” he says. “I think that shows a lot of courage and it shows a lot of innovation.”

Carignan wanted to take SNS a step beyond Zoom.

“I think that Zoom fatigue is a real thing because people’s jobs now are so consumed by that app. And that if there was a way to produce something that had a set and had costumes and lighting, but that was still able to be socially distant, that that would just be one step beyond a Zoom reading…I’m really proud of our board for not saying ‘You can’t do anything, it’s impossible.’ They were so encouraging,” he says.

Finding the material came organically. Carignan had been a fan of the show in school and “I was on a walk with my dogs one day, my iTunes was just on shuffle; John and Jen came up and I thought, ‘Oh God, I love this show.’ It inaugurated contemporary musical theater, along with Jason Robert Brown and Frank Wildhorn and all those young composers of the nineties, they found the new song for contemporary Broadway. The melodies are so gorgeous.”

That was a lightbulb moment for Carignan.

“’Andrew Lippa is a friend now, he lives down the street. Why don’t I just call him?’” Carignan thought. “I called him and he was excited about the project and he thought [our being the first streaming production] sounded great. So he immediately got on the phone with Music Theater International and his licensing agents, and within a week we got news that we were approved to do a virtual production.”

Carignan was excited to mine this new territory.

“I don’t know of any other theaters doing this right now,” he says. “I think that it’s cool to be on the new frontier of something I think will be much more common come the fall and winter.”

John & Jen lends itself to this approach as the story of Jen (Williams) and her relationship with her brother John in the first act and the son she names for him in the second (Minor).

“I have two sisters, so I was connected to the sibling part of it,” Carignan says. “We have two incredible cast members. Hunter Minor, who is from Wright State, he’s going to be a senior over there for the younger guy role, and Dionysia Williams, who has been in many, many of our shows, playing Jen.”

Of Williams, Carignan says, “[She and] I work very well together. We came from the same world. We were both performers in New York City for a number of years at the same time and ended up here in Columbus. So we’ve done a lot of projects together, we’ve directed and choreographed together, at Shore North and CTT, and also at a couple of other regional theaters; we have a really great working relationship.”

Williams worked with Minor at Short North Stage and recommended him for this role.

“I’m so glad she did because he’s really, really talented,” Carignan says. “He actually started at Short North Stage when he was a kid, in Cabaret. Great voice, great actor, really good look for the role and a dream to work with in rehearsal, very collaborative. Both of them have such great chemistry on stage.”

Hunter Minor and Dionysia Williams in Short North Stage’s John & Jen – Photo by Edward Carignan

Taking up that challenge to innovate meant finding a satisfying middle ground between filmmaking and theater but also, as Carignan says, “Safety has to be first for our patrons and our artists. The nice thing about this little John & Jen is we’ve been able to take a six person team, including the actors and all the creatives, and actually rehearse the show socially distanced and figure out what we need for plexiglass while they’re singing and how we keep them apart while staging, and how we make camera angles, make them look like they’re closer together when they’re not.” 

While it’s extra work, Carignan stresses the safety of the production by keeping the actors and music director behind plexiglass partitions as they rehearse.

“So there was all this barrier for any sort of aerosol between the three of them,” Carignan says. “It’s not a big dance musical or big staging musicals. It was mostly about working on the relationships and the arc of the show;  that kind of work is usually done at the table. We just used plexiglass partitions we could see through to have these intimate discussions, but keep ourselves distanced and wearing masks the whole rehearsal process.”

In filming, the actors obviously aren’t wearing masks but Carignan said the other (small) group of people in the room are.

“I staged the show in a way that they can always be about 10 feet away from each other on the set. We designed a set that allowed for that as well. And what’s nice is that the show mostly exists in their own little worlds, so the need for them to be close together wasn’t so essential for the peaks. And in the moments where they did need to be a little closer together, we stopped them separately and then we’re melding those shots together,” Carignan chuckled, referencing the Hayley Mills’ Parent Trap.

“It’s been fun, though,” he says. “I mean I think now, in July, it’s early to be thinking about a show being at its full power yet. Even if it wasn’t all a hundred percent necessary, because we took so many precautions, I still think people will be more comfortable watching something that they know was filmed recently and say, ‘Okay, look, they’re apart from each other.’ Because even now when I watch television, every time someone’s kissing or they’re close together, I’m like, ‘Oh, socially distance,’ because we just have that sort of panic in our minds right now.”

Looking toward the future, Carignan acknowledges the uncertainties while planning ahead for a season due to start in September with the physical comedy Noises Off. This show is important in terms of testing as well as raising funds for new costs essential to doing anything safely.

To accommodate social distancing requirements, the seating arrangements are being redesigned in the Garden Theater.

“The plan is to open with severely reduced capacity, and we’re going to rebuild our seating so everyone is six feet apart,” he says. “We’re actually going to do cabaret seating on risers on the main stage for at least the first part of the season.”

Beyond seating, “[Actors] Equity is going to require us to do weekly testing, which I think is a good thing,” Carignan says. “I think that’ll make everybody feel a little more comfortable knowing that everyone else you’re around has tested negative recently. It’s not a hundred percent, and nothing is. I mean we can only do what we can to mitigate risk. But mask wearing has become really important obviously in rehearsals, making sure the air flow is right and just hand sanitizer everywhere, doing everything we can to make people be as safe as they can possibly be in rehearsal and performance.”

John & Jen is available for streaming July 5 through July 12. For a $50 or more donation to Short North Stage’s Curtain Up fund, patrons receive an invitation to an opening night reception on Zoom with composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, director Edward Carignan, and cast members. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.shortnorthstage.org/johnjen.

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