With theaters closed and the future of live performance hazy, playwright Danielle Mohlman has manifested a small miracle: a multi-week run of her play, Nexus, in a digital format that feels both original and organic.
“I was talking to a lot of actors who were also holed up with their actor partners, and then I started thinking, what if I pull out this two-person play again? Is there anything there?” Mohlman says. “It's a play about two people that can't get away from each other, no matter how hard they try. Not in a scary way, but a “they keep showing up in each other's life” kind of situation. I was like, how weird would that be to do [this play] when you literally cannot leave?”
Like all artists, Mohlman, who is an arts journalist as well as a playwright, has been wrestling with creativity under quarantine. Dacha Theatre necessarily postponed its production of her play, Dust, from a May slot at West of Lenin to a tentative production in the fall, dates TBD. Suddenly, trapped at home in Ballard, Mohlman didn’t know what to do with her creative self. Some playwright friends seemed to relish the newfound writing time, but Mohlman paused rewrites of her in-progress plays because sitting down to work felt like banging her head against the keyboard. “Now I'm putting all my focus on this project [producing Nexus] and flexing different creative muscles for me, so that's been really satisfying,” she says.
Mohlman wrote Nexus, a modern love story about two people who spend three years falling in and out of love with each other, while in a writer’s group at the prestigious Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in 2013 and 2014; it went on to receive an honorable mention on the 2015 Kilroys List, which celebrates excellent new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary playwrights. The show’s minimal casting requirements help skirt one of the biggest problems cropping up in this era of experimental Zoom performances: acting together remotely is hard. Video lags, audio gaps, confusing sightlines, no body language—common tech problems make the work of acting, of actively listening to another’s person’s whole body, incredibly difficult. Casting real-life quarantined couples, both of whom are performers, meant the show’s two-person cast could perform live together. If Mohlman got a few different couples on board, she figured, each couple could perform the 90-minute play once, live from their living room.
"I thought there was no way there'd be a ton of interest because everyone's just so drained emotionally,” she says. “I figured maybe we’d do three performances.” But she kept getting yesses from actors, and those actors started referring friends. Now, from April 17–May 3, Nexus will be performed 11 times, by actors from all over the country (but heavy on the Seattle talent, including Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako and Nick Edwards, Rachel Delmar and Gavin Reub, and erstwhile Seattleites Keiko Green and MJ Seiber). “If I had an 11-show run in a physical theater, I would say that's a success,” Mohlman says.
As she prepares for opening night this Friday, Mohlman has been doing Zoom calls with each set of performers to go over any questions they have about the script, as well as any questions about technical capabilities and how the process will work on show day. “I'm not directing it, but I'm there as a resource if the actors have questions. In an ideal world they would also be holed up with a director but like, we can't manage that," she says with a laugh. “So every performance is going to be interpreted a little differently than the one before and people are going to have a different take on who these characters are. In the script itself, there are a lot of nonverbal moments, so I'm curious to see how the actors put their own spin on that. For me the excitement is literally that it's going to be a different show every night even though it's the same script.”
She continues, “My favorite thing about being a playwright is that I get to be in rehearsal with actors all the time. [Through this process] I've been able to meet all of these incredible people—even though a couple of them I haven't worked with directly before, I've seen everyone perform—and I know that they do good work, and so I'm not nervous about it at all, I'm more excited than anything.”