Convergence Theatre/The Corona Variations, written and directed by Julie Tepperman, via telephone, until May 31. Tickets available at convergencetheatre.com.
In this time of plague and closed theatres, some companies are actually trying to earn money with original material. The Corona Variations, presented by Convergence Theatre, is a cycle of six, five-minute “Phone Plays” which unfold over an entire evening. Collectively, they make for a thoroughly enjoyable and imaginative experience.
The Corona Variations is the brainchild of artistic director Julie Tepperman. Her acclaimed company is known for what it calls “immersive audience experiences”, and to refresh your memory, Convergence put us in hotel rooms for The Gladstone Variations, a park and a church for Passion Play, and made us guests at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish wedding for Yichud (Seclusion). Now Tepperman has placed audience members in their own homes for The Corona Variations.
This is how it works — you are sent a schedule of when you will be phoned by the actors. My first play started at 7:45 p.m., and the last of the six was at 10:15. Now here’s the kicker — you just listen to four of the plays (although one has a bit of improv involved), but you, or one person in the household, has to become an actor. That’s right. You are sent two scripts that call for an additional performer.
My two “acting plays” were Tele-Therapy, where I was a therapist, and Blind (Phone) Date, where I was a client, presumably seeking romance. The scripts only provide your lines, but it was easy to figure out when to speak based on what the actor had just said. Now here’s my confession — when I got the phone call for the first “acting” script, it was a real struggle to begin because the actor and I were not connecting in our lines. It turns out, I was reading from the wrong script, and considering that I have spent a major chunk of my life involved in theatre, made things doubly embarrassing. (I even think I know whom the actor was which renders the situation even worse.)
All the plays are related to different aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, with some lighter and some darker in themes. Tepperman has also ensured that there are a variety of voices from young to old in these phone conversations.
QuaranTeens features a boy and girl in grade 11 who are friends. It is the first time they are actually talking on the phone to each other because they usually text or do social media. An Affair (To Remember), a conversation between two women, contains surprising zingers. The women are engaged in an illicit lesbian relationship because one of them is currently living with another woman.
Too Close for Comfort features a troubled married couple whose splitting up was brought to a dead halt by COVID-19, trapping them in the same 500 sq. ft. condo. The husband is calling the wife from, presumably, the living room couch, while she is in the bedroom. Sisters, Sisters! is the one play not written by Tepperman. It is a special commission from a famous celebrity duo. Needless to say, it is very funny, as one sister is supposed to be on her honeymoon and is trapped at home with her brand new husband, while the other sister is currently making crafts with pompoms.
My two acting scripts were very different from each other in tone. In Tele-Therapy, my client was an older man trapped alone in “Grandpa Prison”. He gave his opinion on all manner of things, and clearly liked to hear the sound of his own voice at the expense of the therapist (me) trying to help. For Blind (Phone) Date, I got a real jerk called Jack who was a very annoying Chatty Cathy. Jack, it seems, spent all his time on this dating site, and had engaged in countless calls before getting to me.
Tepperman has been contemplating some kind of telephone theatre for a while, but the stay-at-home policy brought on by COVID-19 provided the impetus to pursue the concept. Another motivator egging her on “to make something”, was that she was stuck at home with a two-and-a half-year-old and a newborn. As a trial run, the company had a week of telephone performances in April, which led to tweaks in both format and scripts. In fact, Tepperman has to be very cognisant of the daily news, to be ready with updates given the rapid changes that are happening in our new normal.
The organizing and scheduling for The Corona Variations must have been monumental. Convergence Theatre can only handle eight households a night, which means that the scripts are performed in a different order for each unit. Ten actors are in their own homes, repeating their individual play eight times in a row. They are given only a phone number, so they don’t know whom they are calling. We were emailed a programme at the end of the cycle, and some very starry actors are involved, (but I decline to name names, not wanting to spoil the surprise factor). Of note, all box office revenue goes to the actors.
If you are unable to book The Corona Variations this month, Tepperman is planning a new batch of plays in the future, trying to advance the format based on what has been learned thus far. And as a further experiment in tele-theatre, in July, Convergence is premiering Phone Tales for KIDS!, a cycle of original “choose-your-own-adventure” interactive plays for children, ages 4 to 12.
As an end note, I want to stress that The Corona Variations was a lot of fun, and participating as an actor gave the experience a frisson of added adventure. And lest we forget, the play cycle provides us with an evening of something new and different, which is a big bonus in our current stay-at-home lives.