The play’s the thing

Two years ago in pre-COVID times, many of us didn’t even know about Zoom — a cloud-based communications app. Although it provided convenience and changed the way we work and connect, some say that they are tired of virtual meetings.

Still, it is undeniable that Zoom has been instrumental over these two years, not only in supporting 9-to-5 jobs and our personal lives, but also in furthering the reach of the arts. One such example is a Jane Eyre play that was adopted by a local actress and writer Julie Butters and produced by Connecticut-based nonprofit Flock Theater.

Butters, who works as a part-time circulation aid at the Swampscott Public Library, has been acting since she was little, primarily on a volunteer basis. She was involved with children’s theater when she was younger and participated in a lot of plays while studying English at Harvard in her college years.

In 2019, Butters adopted the “Jane Eyre” novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë into a script for a theater play. She worked with a nonprofit Flock Theater in New London, Conn., for many years in the past and they were interested in staging the play. 

“Jane Eyre was actually sort of my re-entry into theater after a long time,” said Butters. “The first major project I had done in quite a few years.”

The theater began rehearsing “Jane Eyre” with Butters in the main role in March 2020. However, they managed to hold only a few in-person rehearsals in Connecticut before everyone’s lives got halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And so at first, I remember those rehearsals; we had some hand sanitizer on the tables. And we were careful to use that before interacting with each other,” Butters said. “None of us really anticipated it would become the huge pandemic that it is now.”

Soon the schools started to shut down. As things with COVID-19 got worse, the director of the play, Derron Wood, made a decision to continue the production online over Zoom.

“Initially, I was skeptical of the idea of doing a Zoom presentation of this play. It was a new thing, and I wasn’t sure how it would work,” said Butters. “Our director took a leap of faith with it. And I am so grateful to him for that because it was amazing to still find a way to act and be creative and connect with other artists and performers to create something to share with the community.”

The production involved 18 people playing various roles. To create a more consistent look, all actors were asked to use a black background and wear light clothes.

Butters used a spare room in her condo. Her husband helped her set up some wooden boards propped up against chairs with a black material draped over them. She put her iPad against shoe boxes and books stacked on a desk.

“I really had only a little more than maybe a foot of playing space between the backdrop and my desk,” said Butters. 

To light the scene, she blocked the window light with some fabric and put shading over lamps to soften the fluorescent light. For some of the night scenes, they decided to use handheld electric candles to create the ambience and atmosphere of a gothic novel. 

“You obviously can’t tell from watching the program that that’s what the setup was. But it was definitely a challenge I had not experienced in acting before,” Butters said.

All the actors were used to performing in the same space with each other and having a very personal interaction. Instead, they found themselves isolated in their own locations, performing via the screens of their devices. 

“That was very different for us,” Butters said. “But there were some advantages to that as well.”

She found the fact that she wasn’t worried about a sudden block or the physical movements or dealing too much with props interesting and rewarding. Without an audience in the room, Butters was able to focus solely on the face on the other side of the screen — her scene partner. She looked at their face and saw what they were expressing, focused on their eyes and what they were saying in a very intense way. 

“I tried to use the challenges of the medium as an opportunity to enjoy that intimacy between performers,” said Butters.

The director and assistant director were recording over Zoom, as the actors were giving their performances from their homes.

However, filming over the internet had its technical challenges. Not everyone in the cast was familiar with Zoom at that point in time. Sometimes the internet connection would lag and people would freeze on screen.

“If someone’s screen froze, we would have to stop and then do another take,” said Butters. 

She believes that the production turned into a wonderful project and a wonderful experience for everybody.

“It was not something that we had traditionally done, but I give (the director) credit for being forward thinking,” Butters said.

The filming was finished in the spring of 2020. The Flock Theater staff moved on to editing and recording the shadow-puppetry scenes, which formed a big part of the project and took quite a bit of effort, time and ingenuity, Butters said. To film the shadow puppetry, give it depth and create different effects, the crew used a DIY multiplane-camera setup.

The film was released on Nov. 6, 2020, on YouTube.

“In person, we would have, of course, reached the local community,” Butters said. “But because the pandemic forced us to find another creative way (to make) and present the film, we ended up having a much larger audience than we would have had.”

To date, the almost two-hour video has been watched more than 4,200 times. Butters reached out to a lot of Brontë appreciation associations around the world. The Brontë Society in England posted a note about the project on its blog. The Italian Brontë Society posted about it on its Facebook page. The Australian Brontë Society shared information with its members and posted a review in one of its newsletters.

There were also a few virtual screenings and a presentation for a group of international scholars who are members of the International Gothic Association. 

“We are still hoping and planning to perform the actual stage production at some point,” said Butters. “Theaters are still struggling with COVID right now. Some of them have done in-person performances, but it is always risky.”

Even though the pandemic continues to be a challenge, Butters said, it has also offered new ways to come together and her experience with “Jane Eyre” is an example of that.

“This project has been, and continues to be, for me, very joyful, fun, creative and just a soul-filling project,” Butters said. “I love the story so much and playing Jane and being involved with this project has been a dream come true.” 

Since finishing the project, Butters has participated in other theatrical projects over Zoom. She continues to write for Flock Theater and is looking forward to finding more ways to act, whether over Zoom or in person.