Ubiquitous Players Virtual Theater Chicago

Back in 2020, when citizens were advised to sequester themselves against the contagious and then-dangerously fatal Covid-19 virus, distraught playgoers and theater artists confronting the temporary closure of Chicago playhouses found comfort in solutions arising from England's eighteen-year ban on entertainment venues from 1642 to 1660—namely, a proliferation of play readings held in private homes. Quarantine isolation (or "social distancing" as it was now called) may have prohibited assembly outside one's immediate kin, but the simultaneous interaction of actor and audience required for performance inevitably led to homebound actors contriving to meet via conference-call audio-visual technology for "table readings" in real time.

Tony Dobrowolski, founder of the theater company later dubbed Ubiquitous Players, dates its "Hey, let's put on a show" moment to March 12, 2019, when he received news that the national tour of The King's Speech, in which he understudied several roles, had been cancelled due to COVID. Confronting the prospect of a "stage freeze" lasting months, he looked to another historical precedent set by similarly disenfranchised 17th-century Londoners and decided to go on the road—the road, in this case, being the Information Highway. "Theater is a communal exercise, not a solo art," he insists, "I contacted people from my teaching days at Denison University in Ohio and Wayne State University in Michigan, as well as folks I know from over thirty years working in Chicago, and proposed we do a reading of Our Town."

The skills necessary to maintaining an illusion of group dynamics on Skype and Zoom—devices hitherto unfamiliar to any but international corporate agencies—weren't accomplished overnight, obviously. "We didn't prepare an advance plan," he confesses, "We just started doing it. By means of 'each-one-teach-one' trial and error, we learned how to project entire scripts onto readers' screens at the same time and how to light faces using household fixtures."

Gradually, online spectators initially puzzled by visual phenomena like the "Kilroy shot"—the peeking-over-the-window-sill visage rooted in the propensity of inexperienced Zoomers to look down at their screens, instead of up at the webcam aperture—acclimated to personae occupying separate windows as they traded dialogue from their remote locations. Performers, too, developed expertise in "headshot acting" techniques encompassing heightened awareness of mannerisms rendered suddenly visible in close-up and an increasing reliance on faces, rather than bodies, for emotional expression.

Design elements in many early online productions often relied heavily on suspend-your-disbelief analogies—as when Anthony Kayer's social-climbing Mr. Collins in Lifeline's virtual Pride and Prejudice took us on a tour of his ancestral country house, furnished in "heirloom" Ikea—but even talking-head viewing ranges mandate creative compromises. If only one actor's home decor included a rotary-dial telephone, the other conversationalists blithely brandished modern cell-phones or pantomimed corded handsets. In the absence of a miniature unicorn for the reading of The Glass Menagerie, a painted-stone bear served as a stand-in for the symbolic ornament.

It was the playwrights, however, that first took advantage of these low-budget opportunities to test-fly new works with a cast of trained A-level actors, Dobrowolski reminds us. Indeed, in the first two months after its launching, Ubiquitous readings featured, not only repertory classics, but freshly-minted plays by Richard Gustin and Richard Lyons Conlon—both still frequent contributors to the series—as well as by Denison alum Wendy Barrie Wilson. ("We now count eighteen playwrights as members and are immensely indebted to each one of them.")

It's now 2023, and the Ubiquitous ensemble still presents a full-length play, complete with post-show discussion, every Saturday afternoon over Zoom, free to a subscription audience. What was born during a time of crisis has proved both convenient for audiences reluctant to travel and enriching for actors enjoying the challenge of roles cast outside of the usual age and gender lines.

So how long is the series expected to continue? Dobrowolski isn't sure. "I am both amazed and delighted that Ubiquitous Players are now in their fourth year! The positive response has been astonishing! We have a faithful core of stalwarts, but for a recent reading, we had five actors who had never performed with us before. This is one of the most mutually supportive groups of people I've ever been part of."

He smiles wryly at the irony of a pandemic providing the theater company its beginning, citing the proverb about an ill wind blowing no good, but then brightens as he proclaims, "I'm willing to continue for as long as there's interest"

Ubiquitous Players perform every Saturday afternoon at 2pm. Information and performance schedules may be found at www.ubiquitousplayers.com

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer