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­Neighborhood Newsy: Creating a Virtual Show (Part 1)

The cast of Neighborhood Newsy Zoom Edition during its June 6, 2020 premiere. L-R, top to bottom: Janet Hoskins as Mrs. Helen M., Jerry Weil as Captain Outrageous, Emily Behr as Marie B., David St. James as Joe S, Michael Caldwell as Harry McQ, Tracey Rooney as Lisa N., Rachel Winfree as Willa R., Debra Kay Lee as Debra P. and Marla Cotovsky as Kimmy K

Note: This is part one of a series in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of her own show, Neighborhood Newsy. The original version was written for the stage, then reconfigured, workshopped and performed on Zoom in the early days of lockdown; it can be seen here. One year later, the theater company she’s a member of suggested a sequel. She’s documenting its development process for The Buzz.

It seems farfetched now, but Spring 2020 was supposed to be the Season of Laura. I was finishing up a class at the Wallis Theatre called Staged Stories, where I was set to perform an original monologue on March 18. Opening night for Character Flaws from Neo Ensemble Theatre was scheduled for March 20 and featured two short plays I had written. And in April, at the Ebell of Los Angeles, a formerly homeless woman, Jo Clark, was scheduled to premiere a one-woman show I had written for her, Man in the Mirror, based on two years of development.

At a March 8 rehearsal of Character Flaws, cancellation was in the air, spread by vapor-strewn COVID-19 pathogens. By March 10, all three of my performances had been canceled. Mayor Garcetti’s lockdown the night of March 15 codified what we already knew. The show must not go on. I wrote my last live theater review and hunkered down.

One of the pieces I’d written for Character Flaws was called In it, a character sat onstage with a laptop, reading from a NextDoor-type feed. His neighbors entered and walked around him, speaking their posts and commenting on each other’s posts. The seated character made snarky and increasingly cruel comments, causing quite a ruckus in his Hancock Park neighborhood. Ultimately, he was outed as a troll and booted off the platform.

Neighborhood Newsy: Zoom Edition director Rachel Winfree as Willa R.

When Character Flaws was cancelled, our theater group was devastated. Neo Ensemble Theatre, with more than 25 years of history in Los Angeles, had been on hiatus for about a year. It had just been reactivated, in January 2020, by long-time members and new artistic directors Rachel Winfree and Michael Caldwell. Freshly invigorated and inspired by this acting/directing/producing team, dozens of Neo members had jumped in, decided on a show theme, then written, cast and rehearsed Character Flaws. A theater was rented and ready to go. How could we recover from our disheartening cancellation and redirect our creative energy during lockdown?

Almost immediately we turned to Zoom. And of all the pieces in the show, the one about a community social media platform made the most sense to transition to the virtual world.

I started rewriting.

David St. James as Joe S. (the troll)

Over the next two months, we workshopped a script about a Zoom experiment. I wrote for nine characters who would appear in a nice, tidy 3×3 Zoom grid, with an unseen Admin who spoke up when things got too unruly. The troll, a character named Joe S. played by David St. James, remained the inciting force in the cast, but over time it evolved into an ensemble piece.

I set the show on March 16, 2020, as the fictional platform’s management pivoted to engage the local Hancock Park community virtually at the beginning of lockdown. Real-world developments, like mask mandates and daily COVID updates, were incorporated into the plot. As we continued to work on it, the show grew into five semi-monthly episodes, finally culminating on May 15, 2020.

The civil unrest a couple of weeks later made us consider extending the show, but ultimately it had come to a satisfying conclusion. So we locked down the script and rehearsed a few more times before performing all five episodes live on Zoom on June 6, 2020.

Marla Cotovsky as Kimmy K

Rachel directed, guiding the cast to embrace their roles and keep things moving. The talented actors, who brought so much to the script, also did their own props, lighting, set design, makeup and costumes. They had to make quick changes between episodes to show their physical decline and increasing anxiety over the first two months of the stay-at-home order.

Ira Goldberg, an experienced videographer and editor I met through the Wallis, added titles and music. A week after the performance, we posted the show on YouTube, feeling a great sense of accomplishment.

Neighborhood Newsy: Zoom Edition helped keep me sane during the insane early days of COVID-19. It was challenging but grounding to have somewhere to go (my desk) and something to do. I was inspired by the structure of the nine-person grid, the endless flow of NextDoor posts and the hilarity of the workshopping process. We threw around ideas about how to raise the stakes and spoof a surreal period that felt unspoofable.

Working on the project together bonded us as an acting and writing community. Cast members started taking socially distanced walks together to Larchmont and the Grove. We have remained close and done many other shows on Zoom in the ensuing months. But NeighborhoodNewsy: Zoom Edition will always be my favorite.

Now work is ramping up on more episodes. Future articles in this series will detail the progress as we head toward rehearsal and performance this summer. I hope you’ll follow along and join us for the premiere.

You can read Part 2 of this series here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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