ITHACA, NY -- Last weekend Clockmaker Arts stormed Zoom accounts across the county and country with their latest original play, “What If, In a Snowstorm…”. This new addition to the Ithaca theatre community has pumped some new blood onto the scene with a goal, according to its founders, of righting some of the wrongs that have pervaded theatre communities in the past.
Elizabeth Seldin and Evie Hammer-Lester formed the company as a way to heal and tell human stories while responding to the unsavory way of doing things that existed within theatre practices.
“In a lot of theatres, we are expected to be perfect,” Seldin said. “But we aren’t perfect beings, we are human beings. Which is why our founding value is the idea of ‘human first.’”
“What If” is their second play put up during the pandemic after following this summer’s “What Haunts You,” a virtual adaptation of a previously released show they put on in December of 2019 at the Kitchen Theatre. The duo teamed up again with Seldin writing and appearing in the show and Hammer-Lester taking the reins on directing.
But this time, the Clockmakers created a show made entirely for the medium of Zoom.
“We decided to embrace this new medium and adapt with it since we’re confined to using it,”
Hammer-Lester said. “We’re still telling a story about the human experience, which is what we love to do, but now it’s through Zoom, which makes it a very particular experience for not only the audience but for our actors as well.”
The show focused on four housemates who are living through the pandemic when a sudden snowstorm confines them even more from the outside world. Relationships are broadened and divided through a game, aptly titled: “What If?” that requires the group to open up and connect with each other through virtual means, in the absence of physical touch and connection.
Seldin’s writing is prone to play with magical realism. “What Haunts You” used ghosts as a motif to talk about past trauma, while her most recent work had the inclusion of “magic moments” in which time stops and the characters turn inward—an action that mirrors the passage of time during the pandemic.
“My writing tends to have a lot of magical elements,” Seldin said. “And I think right now we are living in a version of magical reality. Now more than ever we have this six-foot-wide bubble around us and that energy of being in a space with people and connecting through touch has become so much more vibrant and palpable in retrospect. It feels like we’re living in a magic moment where time has stopped for some of us.”
According to Seldin, each of the characters mirrored some of the ways she has noticed the people in her life have been handling the pandemic. Some characters had staunch rules while others began to disassociate and “numb themselves.”
The writing process began in October and after two workshops the show was finally ready to begin rehearsals in early November.
Hammer-Lester, in addition to being a director, also has a passion for choreography, an aspect of artistic expression she has not been able to continue virtually in the same way that she has been able to do with theatre.
“I’m a very physical director and while putting together a Zoom show creates a lot of distance between me and my actors, it also creates an interesting form of trust,” Hammer-Lester said. “The actors are so much more exposed and putting themselves out there with a medium they don’t know about, and to gain the trust of them is so important.”
One of the many challenges that the team had to face during rehearsals was creating the idea that all of the actions were taking place under one roof. Cameras were angled and intricately placed to not only get the impression that a snowstorm was raging on outside, but also to avoid things like the New York City skyline from popping into frame and ruining the theatre magic they had created, according to Hammer-Lester.
For both of them, perhaps the hardest struggle to helm together a virtual show has been the loss of community and socialization that occurs during a rehearsal process. To combat this and encourage not only connection, but also normalcy, Hammer-Lester set aside 10 minutes before and after rehearsals to chat with her actors about their lives outside of the virtual rehearsal room.
“While Zoom fatigue is a very real thing, and sometimes I would dread having to tune in to this virtual…space,” Hammer-Lester said, “every time we began rehearsal and we started to do the work, it always hit me why I love to do this. Sometimes it even felt like a regular in-person rehearsal!”
The pair knows better than anyone that Zoom theatre is not always perfect. It feels like a different ball game entirely and the results are not always enjoyable. And because of that, they have embraced their focus as a “process-based theatre company”, a sentiment that echoes through the escapist rehearsal ventures and into the performances.
“We’re all looking to have space to cry and be human,” Seldin said. “You can walk away loving the show or hating it, but to walk away with nothing and forgetting it is the ultimate loss.”
Seldin and the cast compared their latest work to something different than theatre. There’s an energy like a film where each of the actors is their own dresser, set designer, and stage manager.
Cast member and co-founder Tyler Gardella compared the experience to the days of old soap operas being taped in front of live audiences.
But whatever form of entertainment their work technically falls into, the Clockmakers couldn’t care less about sticking labels on it.
As the world continues on, so will the Clockmakers. Plans for two more shows are percolating as 2021 approaches. Seldin has been working with Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) instructing a group of kids on how to write, direct, and act in a devised piece about the Black Lives Matter movement while also writing their next show, “Who’s Patrick?” which ideally will take place outside around a campfire.