At least they didn't have to jump out of trees or off rooftops.
Gung-ho Children's Theatre Company performers Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund are accustomed to physically and psychologically hurling themselves into their roles. But like nearly every other performer, they pivoted online during the pandemic.
When live theater shut down, the married couple started making videos, culminating in a seven-part series called "Audrey Saves the Universe." Scripted by Ness and directed by Sigmund, it is about an intrepid 9-year-old girl filmmaker who is intent on using her art to make things right in the world.
Instead of dinging their bodies, Sigmund and Ness discovered they could use editing tricks.
"At first, we thought we had to act out [stunts] fully," Ness said. "But as soon as we realized we didn't have to … we were in great shape."
And that's quite literal, especially for Sigmund, who has injured himself diving, running, swinging and jumping onstage. Without any physical scrapes, the couple broadened their skill sets.
"In these difficult times, we've had artists find extraordinary ways to create, connect and be of service to the community," CTC artistic director Peter Brosius said. "Reed and Autumn have stretched their imaginations and learned new skills and new ways of creating. They shot videos in their home on an iPhone using their kids, their dog, Permit, and repurposed stuff. If you love physical comedy or to see how an empowering story of a girl who's bullied and finds her gifts, it's all there."
Sigmund and Ness were acting in the world premiere of Philip Dawkins' "Spamtown," about the bitter 1980s P-9 strike at the Austin meat-processing facility, when the theater shut down in March 2020. They couldn't fathom the devastation COVID-19 would wreak.
"We had a period of like, 'This isn't happening,' " Ness said. "We're used to theater where the show must go on, whatever we have to do. There was a drawn-out process of accepting that there were going to be major changes, and major time away."
Plus, there were rehearsals coming up for "Annie," CTC's planned spring musical.
"It probably took, I'd say, a month, but maybe closer to six weeks, to let it sink in that we're not coming back in the summer and probably not in the fall, so we immediately started exploring other things," Sigmund said.
Those other things included entries in the theater's Write Now series, in which kids would write plays and Sigmund and Ness would act them out and film them.
Those plays required the couple to just jump in without critiquing the kids' scripts.
"They were so bizarre but so imaginative," Sigmund said. "If you'd taken adults into a living room and say, write a 10-minute play, no adult would be able to expand their imaginations wide enough to create these stories that weren't burdened by [dramaturgical] rules or character arcs."
But as parents of two boys, now in first and fifth grades, the couple understood the kids' creativity. They also saw an opportunity.
An episode a week
"We were doing home schooling at the time so each episode took a week, and that was filming with the kids and the dog, because they were home and we had to do something with them," Ness said. "Suddenly, everyone had a character, which was a much better plan than saying, 'OK, everyone, time to be quiet.' "
The couple would film it over the weekend, and start editing it Monday and Tuesday. CTC would post the episode on its Facebook and YouTube pages Wednesday morning.
That was a warm-up for "Audrey," based on a character that Ness had written more than a decade ago.
"It's a story about somebody coping with isolation through creativity, and, holy cow, this is suddenly the right time for it," Ness said. "Audrey's moment had come."
Individually and together, Ness and Sigmund wrote, directed, designed, scored, edited and costumed the series. The pandemic has been rough, no doubt, but the layoff also provided opportunities to grow.
Doing things on screen as opposed to onstage in person "was a fun, incredible education," Sigmund said. He learned to edit and get creative with the camera.
One of the things that Ness struggled with was toning down her character for the screen, where subtlety, sometimes, is enough for the camera.
"We couldn't downshift — there's 700 people out there," Ness said, referencing the size of CTC's main stage where she's used to projecting.
Sigmund encouraged her.
"I don't think you have to play small because you're on camera," he said. "It's about playing your character's truth, and if that truth is big — Audrey is a tornado — then it's big."
Working in film also allowed them to see their craft in a new light.
"The muscles are not so very far apart," Ness said. "When you're onstage, you know when to be still and when your setup needs to help somebody's joke move forward, you know the timing when you need to come in. So you would just translate all of your theatrical know-how into shots."
What was surprising for both artists was being able to see themselves after a take. Usually, they rely on their stage director to be their eyes.
"With this, you film yourself on camera and have to edit yourself," Sigmund said. "It allows for a lot more self-criticism."
There are stories of couples getting sick of each other during the pandemic. But Sigmund and Ness have been working together since the mid-1990s, when they met in college and started dating.
"That's shows together, classes together, living together, married together, kids together," Ness said. "I turned to Reed and said, 'We've been preparing for this pandemic all our lives.' "
Besides, Sigmund said, their videos will be time capsules, at least for their family.
Ness said that the pandemic has shown one thing that she has always known but now everyone else should.
"Artists provide an essential service to humanity," she said. "Telling people's stories, showing people themselves on screen or in a play, through music, or showing people someone they've never met or seen — whatever it is the artists are telling you, the musician, the playwright, the actor, the painter, they are providing a service with empathy, with the ability to see new things and the ability to see yourself in their work. And now that we're coming out of the pandemic, I hope we never take that for granted again."
'Audrey Saves the Universe'
Who: Written and acted by Autumn Ness. Directed and acted by Reed Sigmund. Produced by the Children's Theatre Company.
When: Through June 4 (but can watch all seven episodes through June 6).
Tickets: Pay-what-you-will starting at $15. 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org/audrey.