Perhaps no other art form has been harder hit by the pandemic than that of live theater.

So if you’re an Orange County theater and have learned that you’re essentially going to be dark pretty much indefinitely, how do you keep a light burning in the window? How do you stay connected to your patrons?

That was the issue facing theater companies in March of 2020, just as the lockdown forced closures. For Chance Theater, the answer lay in technology and its ability to transcend physical limitations. And that’s how the Cyber Chats were born.

The program, which celebrated its first anniversary last weekend (April 3), is the brainchild of Oanh Nguyen, the Anaheim Hills theater company’s founding artistic director.

Nguyen said that as soon as he and his team “realized we were not going to be able to produce stories on stage ourselves,” they recognized the need for a way to reach out to patrons to keep them engaged in theater. And since Chance had no online content of its own and no filmed versions of any of its past productions, the shows being talked about would have to be whatever other companies were in the process of creating for online audiences.

Cyber Chats, Nguyen said, have filled the bill, giving Chance “an opportunity to lift up other productions and keep the conversation with our community going” on an ongoing basis – an average of twice a month over the past year.

Literary manager James McHale and managing director Casey Long were immediately tapped by Nguyen to help him in running the program.

Nguyen and McHale share the producing duties. McHale typically hosts the online chats, with Long filling in for McHale as host whenever needed. Long also introduces each chat, handles the follow-up discussions, and conducts all of the program’s marketing.

How to Surmount a Global Pandemic

Long relates that the program’s existence is “definitely in response to the pandemic” and that it was Nguyen’s idea. “We realized that even though we might not be able to produce live theater, that we could provide a service of having discussions,” Long said. Cyber Chats, he said, serve that purpose, creating “an opportunity for everyone to get together to talk about theater.”

Nguyen credits the program’s success to McHale and Long, as well as local and previously-local actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, all of whom “have given so much of their time, intelligence and compassion to the discussions.”

A fairly reliable format has emerged that has served the program well. First off, Long welcomes everyone and introduces the show that will be the focal subject. Next, a dramaturg talks about the show in question. After that, an artists panel conducts a brief discussion. And finally, host and moderator McHale opens the conversation up to anyone who has something to offer.

“Everyone on each ‘e-call’ can ask questions,” Long said.  “The whole thing takes about an hour. Anyone who wants to hang out afterwards and keep chatting or visiting is welcome to do so. We’ve never cut things off the moment the formal program is over.”

Participation in Cyber Chats is free and anyone is free to partake. Chance Theater advertises the program on its website and uses social media, mass emails and word of mouth to get the word out about each new or upcoming Cyber Chat.

“It’s really just something we wanted to do for our community,” Long noted.

Combining the Post-Show Discussion with Organized Theater Tours

McHale says the nuts-and-bolts aspects of launching the program weren’t too tough: “Once we worked out the idea, it was fairly easy to get off the ground.”

Also, he said, because of the industry-wide shutdown, “there was a surge of more filmed theater becoming available online, so it was easier than expected to put the program together and put together a series that included both plays and musicals, comedies and dramas, and they were easily accessible for audiences – and we found that a lot of artists and audiences were hungry to both watch theater and come together and talk about it.”

McHale recalls a conversation with Nguyen revolving around options for programming during a prolonged shutdown. “The primary question we asked ourselves was, what could we do that fits our mission and what we do as a theater company? And the answer to that was conversations.”

The Cyber Chats program, McHale notes, in effect combines two elements familiar to Chance Theater patrons: the post-show discussion and ongoing recommendations of which shows to attend not just in Southern California but also in New York.

For most of its more than 20-year history, Chance Theater has followed up every performance, reading and workshop with a post-show discussion. Cyber Chats have continued to tap into the desire of audiences, culled by years of such discussions at Chance, to be deeply engaged in conversations about the subjects of various shows – and to be able to have that dialogue not just with each other but with the artists themselves.

Chance also routinely organizes trips for its patrons to see local productions as well as annual theater trips to New York. Since Chance was no longer producing any shows, Cyber Chats have allowed them, in a sense, to provide virtual theater trips through which audiences can view and then discuss plays being done elsewhere.

Extending Chance’s Reach Both Geographically and Intellectually

Long said topics have been varied, ranging from artistic expression to the LGBTQ experience. “A wide variety of work has been covered and watched and discussed, and it’s invigorating. Each time we hop onto the Cyber Chat, people get so excited about theater, about art, about what moves them.

“Just being able to connect with someone else about that moment when the actor said that line in such a way that made you weep or gave that look that made you laugh, being able to share that even though you’re not in the same room, makes you feel connected. It’s been a really beautiful thing, and I’m happy to see people come back again and again and stay in touch with each other.

“I would say that people are pretty quick to pick up on how to use Zoom and such and that they’re interested,” Long said. “Early on, people may have been, like, ‘I don’t want to deal with the online thing,’ but since then the response has been fantastic.”

Cyber Chats

All 22 of the Cyber Chats done to date are listed on Chance’s website.

Chat No. 23 arrives tonight, April 9, from 8 to 9 p.m., when Chance hosts a discussion of Martin Zimmerman’s one-woman show “On the Exhale.”

You’ll want to see the show before the discussion, so click here to see the YouTube trailer of Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of the show, starring Marin Ireland:

To watch the entire play (running time: 1 hour, 2 minutes), click here:

https://www.broadwayhd.com/movies/AW2GupEqpx3F9_4Aqew1

To register for this free event, click here:

Also “fantastic,” according to Long, is “the reach that we have. We have people calling in from New York. We’ve had resident playwrights participate who are living in New York and who live in Florida. Just being able to expand our community to beyond state lines to bring us together has been very exciting and encouraging.”

The Most Memorable Cyber Chats, Including Some ‘Fun Celebrity Surprises’

Nguyen and Long fondly recall the moments when their online chats attracted attention from the subjects of discussion, what Nguyen calls “fun celebrity surprises.”

Writer-performer Benjamin Scheuer pre-recorded a video thanking Chance for its forum about “The Lion,” his one-man show at Geffen Playhouse. While the European touring production of “An American in Paris” was in the city of Paris, one of its cast’s leads, Michael Burrell, dropped in on a conversation about that show.

When the subject was “Ann,” Holland Taylor’s one-woman show about colorful Texas governor Ann Richards, Taylor asked the show’s stage manager, Robert Tolaro, to participate in her absence. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Taylor herself logged on and joined in for around two minutes. Long said she was on an East Coast film shoot, logged on while she was on a break, “said she was sad she couldn’t be there longer, and thanked us for letting her be on our chat.”

Nguyen said that the Cyber Chats that have become the program’s highlights to date are those “where so many shared their own personal stories in relation to what we all watched: the chats for ‘Falsettos,’ ‘Indecent,’ ‘Pipeline,’ ‘The Lion,’ ‘Latin History for Morons,’ ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ and ‘Every Brilliant Thing’.”

McHale also cited “Constitution” as well as the play “Passover” as having been memorable – in these two cases, for having generated “really long, complicated, thoughtful conversations with the audience and our artists that could have been really difficult or tense because of their uncomfortable subjects.” He said both discussions saw “amazing turnouts” of “really enthused audiences wanting to talk about some of the uncomfortable truths in those plays.”

While the topic show of every previous Cyber Chat has been a show produced by others, Chance has an exciting first in the offing: June 4’s online conversation will focus on “The Story of My Life” and the July 16 Chat is about the show “Sweat.” Both shows are on Chance’s upcoming season, and these Cyber Chats mark the first time the program will focus on shows that are Chance Theater productions, and both Long and McHale emphasize that going forward, the program will continue to promote shows produced by other theaters but will now also feature Chance’s own shows too.

Long, McHale and Nguyen say the program has more than surpassed all expectations. Nguyen said, “It not only deepened our relationship with our artists and patrons, but it has built many new connections and awareness of the Chance. And since it was virtual, we were also able to reconnect with artists that have relocated to other parts of the country. We believe connection has been the key.”

McHale notes that the series has evolved in a way that puts “greater urgency and emphasis on sharing stories that uplift and amplify BIPOC artists and voices and other individuals from underrepresented backgrounds through the productions we choose to program and an increased effort in having socially relevant conversations around the topics and themes in these shows.”

In fact, McHale said, what has been “pleasantly surprising” about Cyber Chats has been “how willing the community has been to have those conversations – how open people are to listen and learn from each other and to talk about something that maybe they weren’t as familiar with and learn from people that have a different background than they do.”

Technology has Kept a Light Burning in Chance’s Window

Using technology to have conversations about theater an average of twice a month during a pandemic actually served another purpose that perhaps no one could have anticipated: It kicked open a door that Chance eagerly walked through. Over the past year, it has converted the bulk of its various theater programs from live, in-person events to virtual experiences.

“We changed all of our ‘Speak Up’ programs to be online,” Long said. “We offer virtual classes; have created three new online theater series; have participated in online short play festivals along with 30 others in the Los Angeles area; and even created a holiday cabaret show that was virtual.”

When asked about the prospects of Chance Theater once again being fully open, both Long and Nguyen emphasize that despite what the public might hear about reopenings throughout California, “It has to be safe for our artists and our audience members.”

Regardless of when reopening occurs, Chance plans to continue doing Cyber Chats. “We’ll continue to have them in some form,” Long said. “People have clung onto the opportunity to connect. We’ve created a virtual online connection, and that’s not something we want to lose.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter@gmail.com.

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