U Theatre alumni of “WHO’S LOUIS?” present digital installation “I'm Not Playing”

July 21 2020
Photo courtesy WHO'S LOUIS? Photo courtesy WHO'S LOUIS?

By Emeri Fetzer 

Four alumni of the U Department of Theatre, now roommates in Brooklyn, are busy devising a new piece of theatre to be presented digitally.

“In response to the pandemic!” you may be immediately thinking.

But, these four Utah grads turned New York City-based actors, and now known as WHO’S LOUIS?, were actually hard at work on their digital installation piece, “I’m Not Playing” well before COVID-19 changed season programming across the nation.  

Cece Otto, Katryna Williams, Monica Goff, and Dominic Zappala met as undergraduates in the Actor Training Program. When post-graduate fellow Julie Rada brought a group of students together to make a new piece for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), Otto jumped to get involved. Soon, local theatre producer Sackerson announced a 24-hour theatre festival. Eager to keep performance momentum going, Otto recruited classmates and friends to enter a new work in the festival. Little did they know, this would be the first project of their future theatre company. They won first place. The next year they made another piece for KCACTF, with help from special funding from the College of Fine Arts.  

Soon after graduation, the four relocated to NYC. “The work itself is a mix of movement and sometimes poetry, sometimes a story line…” Otto said. “Everything we have done thus far has been really different. And we produce all of it ourselves.”

We started talking about where theatre meets game play, or interaction with the audience. And then as those conversations were happening, we found ourselves quarantined for the pandemic, all four of us in the same apartment. It was the perfect timing.

When 2020 began, Otto was reaching the finish line on her online master’s degree in arts administration from SUU. Her final capstone project was approaching. “I was looking at my resources in NYC as a young artist, and was thinking to myself how few resources we have: money, time — all of us work a number of jobs — space is very limited,” she said. Wanting to do something that would also further WHO’S LOUIS?, she began to think outside the box. “I thought of how Screendance is becoming very popular, and I had seen a lot of it while I was at the U, because I had friends in modern dance. I didn’t think there was any equivalent for theatre, or anything I considered a true equivalent.” When her advisor reacted positively to the idea of a digital piece as her capstone, she couldn’t wait to tell her collaborators.   

“As we were having this conversation about Cece’s capstone project, we were also having conversations about convention and our ideas about how to break theatrical conventions,” Williams said. “We started talking about where theatre meets game play, or interaction with the audience. And then as those conversations were happening, we found ourselves quarantined for the pandemic, all four of us in the same apartment. It was the perfect timing.” Process 2

They started holding two rehearsals every week, right at home. Their walls were covered in notes. They created a huge paper timeline that spanned their common space. Sometimes they would wake each other up in the middle of the night with an idea that couldn’t wait for morning.

Goff explained, “In developing it, we thought about things people might do after thirty days in quarantine. We built from there — thinking of strange and quirky things that might seem normal after a long period of time spent alone. From there, we developed characters: one who is spiritual, one that is a stereotypical stoner, one who is into self-help, and one who is obsessed with her work. Then we figured out the relationships. It is the story of four roommates trying to deal with the breakup of two of them.” 

Filmed and edited in advance, viewers will be able to experience “I’m Not Playing” from many different angles of their own choosing. From several cameras throughout the apartment, audience can select to follow characters or even explore an empty room.

It is a technological undertaking that would be daunting to some. Luckily, Dominic Zappala is the secret weapon every theatre company desperately needs this year. With a background in computer programming in addition to his theatre training, he knew how to build the site that would host the piece. “Basically, we had written the show, we had come up with the concept, and we knew how we were going to film it and then we thought, 'How do we host this? What kind of platform do we put this on? Do we go to Twitch? Do we use YouTube?' Dominic coded our website and he said, ‘You know what? I think I can do it.’ He edited the whole project as well,” Williams explained.  

“I’m Not Playing” has already been picked up by the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (July 30-August 9), the Minnesota Fringe Festival (July 30 - August 9), and the Rochester Fringe Festival (September 15-26). not playing grid

The group is excited to have theatre engagements on the calendar, especially at a time of such extreme cancellations in the arts. Using this time in quarantine to move forward without hesitation, WHO’S LOUIS? has not only come up with a great final product, but have learned invaluable lessons in the developmental process.

“I am someone that is always worried about the future, always worried about money,” Otto confided. “You know, I want to make something of quality — and how do we do that when we have so few resources? I think we spent $40 total on things we didn’t already have. We filmed it on our phones and our computers. It really proved to me that you don’t need money to make something of quality. You just need the time and the energy to dedicate yourself to your project.”

Beyond the importance of adaptability, this strange time has offered a chance for reflection on the future of theatre at large. Goff explained, “This is the time to rethink theatre and to think about why we are stuck in traditional forms when there are so many ways to make this craft accessible. As we are seeing the world crumble, this is the time to rebuild.”

Stay tuned on more details on upcoming shows by following WHO’S LOUIS? on social media! @whoslouisco