Pandemic Performance

by Leah Rumack (BA ’96)

photography by Mike Ford

Laura Mullin (BFA ’94) and Chris Tolley (BFA ’95) were making #PandemicTheatre before it was cool. On March 12, 2020, the York theatre graduates and co-founders of Expect Theatre were recording the latest episode of PlayME, their CBC podcast that turns Canadian plays into audio dramas. They didn’t know that the world was about to implode, instantly shuttering live performance for the foreseeable future, but it turns out they were ready when it did.

“All of a sudden, CBC had to shut down a lot of their entertainment programming,” Tolley recounts. “They looked around and said, ‘Well, what can we still do?’ And they saw podcasting. So they asked us if we had any other ideas.”

Mullin and Tolley – who formed Expect shortly after graduation and have been writing and producing everything from site-specific live performances to PlayME ever since – sold two additional theatre-focused podcasts to the CBC in a matter of days. Within a week, they’d designed a system for recording shows remotely and were madly shipping microphones to actors locked in their homes across the country.

The results – The Show Must Go On, which features audio versions of Canadian productions that were affected by COVID-19, and The Quarantine Chronicles, a series of original one-act plays by Canadian playwrights set in a world upended by the pandemic – have kept performers employed and the spark of theatre alive. In June, Toronto’s well-known Tarragon Theatre also tapped Expect to help produce an all-audio season called Tarragon Acoustic.

It’s been months since lockdowns began, with no sign that theatres will be opening anytime soon, so if Mullin and Tolley already seemed pretty clever when they launched PlayME in 2016, they now look downright prophetic.

“There was a bit of prescience for sure,” says Richard Rose, the artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, a York guest lecturer and 1978 graduate of what was then called Drama Studies. “They’re onto something, and I think this new art form will continue to grow.”

“There’s an increasing interest in immersive podcast storytelling,” says Arif Noorani, the executive producer of CBC Podcasts, noting that within the past year alone, the broadcaster has grown its library of what people used to call “radio plays” dramatically.

All of a sudden, CBC had to shut down a lot of their entertainment programming. They looked around and said, “Well, what can we still do?”

Mullin and Tolley didn’t mean to become trendsetters when they first came up with the idea for PlayME. They were just tired of the painfully short life – and limited geographical reach – of most Canadian plays.

“We love the live theatre experience, but the downside is that it’s so ephemeral,” says Tolley. “You have to be in that city at that moment to be able to experience it, and then it’s gone.”

Mullin says they also envisioned a world where the years of sweat that can go into creating a new play could give playwrights a better return on their creative investment than the short onstage run that’s typical for Canadian independent theatre. “These are really well-crafted pieces of writing,” she says, “so we thought, ‘Why not give them another life?’ ”

And so they did. PlayME is now arguably the biggest single platform for theatre in Canada, and one that happens to be pandemic-proof. This is not to say that recording a high-quality audio play remotely is exactly easy. For starters, most actors don’t have a soundproof studio in their homes. The answer? Closets.

“Now we have all these poor actors spending hours sitting in their closets, yelling and acting their hearts out among their sweaters and jackets,” Tolley laughs.

It was all a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, but the duo says it will probably continue to produce some of PlayME remotely even after life returns to “normal,” because it allows them to work with actors, playwrights and directors outside their home base of Toronto.

Expect’s chances of success in the audio drama world were no doubt helped along by the fact that Tolley has always been PlayME’s resident sound mixer and foley artist, technical skills that most producers and directors don’t have. He credits his time at York with instilling in him the benefits of being a creator who can wear many hats – often at the same time.

“We were given an opportunity to do everything at York, from producing plays to learning how to sell tickets to lighting and costume design,” he says. “You learn a little bit of all these different skills that you can incorporate into different worlds, or can use when the world changes and you have to pivot yourself.”  ■

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