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Tucson's The Rogue Theatre trailblazes an answer to live shows amid COVID-19

Tucson's The Rogue Theatre trailblazes an answer to live shows amid COVID-19

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This is theater as we’ve never seen it.

Sure, Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” which opens The Rogue Theatre’s season, is 65 years old, but it’s unlikely it’s ever been staged like this.

The actors wear masks. They never touch. The script is recorded.

It is a foreign way for actors to perform — the face is often essential to conveying emotions and depth. When dialogue is recorded, the actors can be deprived of discovering new nuances in their characters.

But with the choice of no theater and figuring out a safe way to present it, The Rogue folks chose the latter.

It hasn’t been easy.

“The biggest challenge was embracing doing things differently,” says Christopher Johnson, who directs “A View from the Bridge.” He initially thought the theater should just scrap the whole season. “But we wanted to do something normal in this time when things are so not normal.”

Most rehearsals have been over Zoom.

“It gave us the opportunity to really work on the text and do a deeper dive than you would normally get in the process,” says Carley Elizabeth Preston, who plays Beatrice in the play.

When they did meet to rehearse, Preston still wasn’t sure it would all work.

“I do remember having moments when I was watching a scene and thinking how weird it was being in a mask,” she says. “You are losing half your face, half your expression.”

But as rehearsals went on, Johnson and his cast began to embrace the project.

“Eventually it went from a major inconvenience to joy,” says Johnson. “What we had to do was figure out how to make safety into art.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects for actors was matching their actions and lip movements — seen faintly through the three layers of linen masks — to the recorded lines and sounds.

“It’s a lot like dancing to music,” says Cynthia Meier, who plays a couple of roles in the play. Meir is a co-founder of the theater. “The feelings are still there, the movement is still there, it’s just not coming out of our mouths.”

The recorded sound and other safety changes were hurdles for Johnson to get over.

“One of the biggest things I struggled with is, is it theater?” he says. “Much to my chagrin and delight, all of the disruptions to our regular processes of creating and presenting the play turned out to make the play better in other ways.”

However, the specter of the coronavirus rising and forcing a closure is very real.

So on Sept. 8, three days before the scheduled opening, the actors gathered in masks and costumes and performed the play while three cameras filmed. The process was to be repeated the next night.

The film will be available if the show closes, or if audience members don’t feel safe gathering.

For those attending in person, the audience is limited to 45 in a theater that otherwise seats 172. Seats have more than 6 feet between them and the rows are staggered. Temperatures are taken at the door and masks must be worn. There will be professional cleaning between performances.

Whether on film or in person, The Rogue has trailblazed an answer to theater in the time of COVID-19.

“I started out wondering if we should even do the play,” says Johnson. “Now I feel we’ve created a whole new art form. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Kathleen Allen has written about the arts in Tucson for more than two decades.

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