The Show Must Go On(line)

Mildred's Umbrella's FemFest Houston Goes Virtual

When the pandemic made holding its planned staged readings impossible in-person, Mildred's Umbrella produced its entire festival through Zoom.

By Chameli Belk-Gupta June 2, 2020

While quarantined Houstonians have been unearthing old board games, baking bread, and learning how to cut their own hair (to varying degrees of success), Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company and Asia Society Texas Center, have been hard at work bringing theater to a virtual platform. The result of that effort is FemFest Houston: Voices of Asia, part of Mildred’s Umbrella’s ongoing FemFest series, which brings three staged readings to Bayou City screens in June.

Each FemFest celebrates part of Houston’s diverse cultural landscape by staging readings of plays written by women from frequently underrepresented demographics. For its 2020 FemFest, Mildred’s Umbrella partnered with Asia Society Texas Center to shine a light on Asian and Asian American women in theater, but as the novel coronavirus torpedoed its way through the country, forcing theaters everywhere to close their doors, the organizations reevaluated their plans. While FemFest could no longer be a live event, they realized the program’s uncomplicated staged reading format could translate to a virtual platform.

Still, it took some time to figure out the safest and most effective way to proceed. “We thought maybe we could get the actors together to film it and put it online, but it just never seemed safe, and it still doesn’t,” says Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred’s Umbrella. Eventually, they decided to rehearse and film the production through Zoom, in what actor and Festival Manager Leighza Walker has dubbed “the Brady Bunch View”—where all the actors’ heads appear onscreen in their own squares.

Actors rehersing.

Of course, putting together a piece of theater over Zoom has not been without challenges. Lighting and sound, which differ from home to home, have needed to be carefully adjusted, and actors have used some creativity to find the right spaces to perform. “There’s not a blank wall in our house,” Walker laughs. “So, we had to use some imagination, moving things around to get a blank background.”

The biggest challenge, Decker adds, is that some of the actors have never actually been in the same room together. This untraditional rehearsal process has however, managed to nurture new relationships. Walker misses chatting with fellow actors between scenes but says, “I do feel like I’m developing a friendship with some of the other actors that I had not ever met before.”

Overall, Decker has been pleased with the process. “I’m pretty pleasantly surprised at how well they are doing,” says Decker, adding with a laugh, “anything that goes wrong I’m going to blame on Zoom.”

Videos of the Houston: Voices of Asia readings will be released one at a time starting on June 4 and will be available to watch for a week at Asia Society's website. Some of the videos will also feature an interview with the playwright. See the full schedule below:

FemFest Houston 2020 | June 4–24, online

 Peaches by Soo-Jin Lee: June 4–10

Mother in Another Language by Taniya Hossain: June 11–17

The Hatmaker’s Wife by Lauren Yee: June 18–24

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