A lot of us have gotten used to the idea that our homes are our offices, but actor Katie Bradley might be the only one whose home is a theater stage/TV set, with cables snaking all over the place.
It's all for the comedy "Today Is My Birthday." Opening Saturday, it's both the first show staged by Theater Mu since the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down last March and a one-of-a-kind streaming experience that director Lily Tung Crystal thinks no other theaters have tried.
It was written for the stage and will be performed live for two weeks, followed by a week of on-demand shows. But in some ways, "Today Is My Birthday" is less like a play than an online broadcast of a football game or awards show, combining various video feeds. Its six actors — who include Twin Citians Bradley, China Brickey and Eric Sharp as well as, from California, "Gilmore Girls" star Emily Kuroda — use cameras. Ticket buyers will be sent a link to watch on the device of their choice, or cast to their TVs.
Like most actors during the pandemic, Bradley had already upped her tech game by buying a ring light and tripod that replaced "a stack of games, balancing my iPhone on top."
Some scenes will appear as video calls or messages, but Sharp and Kuroda, for instance, share a coffee shop scene via special effects, even though they're thousands of miles apart. Bradley, who has three cameras mounted in her St. Paul duplex, will move around her living room, kitchen and dining room.
All of those places stand in for the Hawaii home of Bradley's character, Emily Chang, who views herself as a failure. As the quirky comedy progresses and Emily chats with remote friends, she finds it difficult to separate fantasy from reality.
Bradley can relate, now that Mu designers have made her Minnesota duplex appear to be a Hawaiian apartment and her partner Lars Roe and their dogs must confine themselves to a roped-off section of it (the bedroom is off-limits to the production).
"There were definitely moments of off-screen freakout where I'm like, 'Everything is OK. Change is good,' as the dining table gets moved and is no longer used for food. It has all this equipment on it," said Bradley. "During the pandemic you create this space of safety, or at least try to, because home is all you have. You can't go anywhere."
Now, there are moments when it's unclear if she's Katie or Emily, especially when she catches sight of Katie's dog, who is not Emily's dog.
"It is sort of this weird thing where I am performing this character but looking around and seeing all of my things. That's trippy," Bradley said. "As an actor, you expect you're going to look at things that will jog your memory because they are different from your comfortable home. Because that's not the case here, it's disorienting. It definitely makes me think about when I was flailing, myself, and how our two worlds blend together, my real-life Katie Bradley self and Emily Chang."
A new art form
"Blending" is a major theme of "Today Is My Birthday." Director Crystal will blend elements of performance and production, and a technician in Tennessee will coordinate multiple cameras along with green-screen elements. It's a trailblazing effort, and it might never have happened if Crystal, Mu's artistic director, didn't have a background in live television.
"I truly see it as Mu contributing to the creation of a new art form, a combination of theater and television. It's television in that it's cameras but it's theater in that it's live," said Crystal, adding that the Zoom-free "Today Is My Birthday" won't look like the virtual theater that preceded it. "We're not doing 'Brady Bunch' squares."
As a result of 25 years in television, during which she also did a lot of theater, Crystal said she knew how to break the rules of both media.
"There's really innovative theater going on in a virtual space, done by people who don't have experience with TV, so I don't want to pooh-pooh that, but I do think a lot of people I've seen succeed have some film or television background," said Crystal.
Another reason Mu artists feel comfortable in this new medium is that Mu pivoted to online quickly. The company has done about 40 virtual events, including segments of the "Mu-tini Hour" talk show on its Facebook page, the first only days after theater shut down in March (one about the musical "Allegiance," featuring George Takei, racked up more than 112,000 views).
"We're just doing what we have learned how to do," said Crystal. "Theaters of our size, especially theaters of color, we're used to having to adapt, having to be flexible and work really hard in the arts. There are more obstacles in our path. And I have to give it up for our staff."
Stop the Cheez-Its
Bradley, who has done a few Mu projects during the pandemic and is set to direct "Man of God" this summer (live, hopefully), misses getting to hang with co-workers after rehearsals. But she appreciates Mu creating opportunities for her and other theater artists to "stop staring at the walls and eating Cheez-Its all day."
Since the play is about how our devices can get in the way of communication, she figures it'll be a chance for everyone to set aside the Cheez-Its and connect, at least virtually.
"Emily has created this isolation around her by using technology. It's like all these things where sometimes miscommunication can be solved if you're in the same room with someone and you just touch their hand or whatever, but she can't," said Bradley. "That's obviously a pretty poignant thing for today."
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Today Is My Birthday
Who: By Susan Soon He Stanton. Directed by Lily Tung Crystal.
When: 7 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., 7 p.m. Wed.-next Fri. Ends Feb. 21.
Tickets: "Pay-as-you-are" ($35 suggested per household), theatermu.org.