Playwrights Scott Rivers (left) and Ray Appel (right) play contestants on a Gabriola Island-themed quiz show hosted by Lesley Hazeldine (centre) in ‘Gabriola Squares.’ (Video still courtesy Ray Appel)

Gabriola Players theatre group presents virtual one-act play festival

Three local productions will be debuted during online event starting this week

A trio of productions by Gabriola Island playwrights is coming to the virtual stage.

From May 20 to 23 the Gabriola Players theatre group presents its one-act play festival, Spring Forward. The plays, which will be broadcast online, are Social Distance by Wendy Phillips, A Divine Comedy by Miranda Holmes and Gabriola Squares by Scott Rivers and Ray Appel.

Social Distance is the first play by Phillips, a Governor General’s Award-winning children’s writer. It follows a woman who, seeking “distance and space,” leaves an unhappy life on the Lower Mainland and moves to a Gulf Island. However, people are still demanding things of her through Zoom calls, Facetime, Skype and video messaging.

“Her son wants her to move back and be a full-time nanny, her friend in Toronto wants her to move across the country and then she’s got a neighbour who also has some ideas for her future and she has to decide whether she’s going to stand up for herself and live her own life,” Phillips said, later adding, “There are a lot of older women who are on their own and who have to learn to be independent and that was an important thing for me to explore.”

Phillips said play writing was a major departure but she enjoyed the process, although writing for Zoom presented some challenges. She said seeing her characters portrayed by actors for the first time was “a little bit disconcerting.”

“You think, ‘Well, that’s not how it was meant to be said because I wrote it differently,’ but when you hear other people and you see them flesh out the character in the way that they would say it, it gives another dimension,” she said. “It sort of sends shivers down your back.”

Holmes’s play, A Divine Comedy, was her first as well and it’s finally being performed after sitting in a drawer for the last 35 years. She originally wrote it in the U.K. in the late 1980s for a radio play contest put on by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

“Over a few pints in the pub one night with a friend of mine I came up with the idea of writing a half-hour play about Shakespeare’s lost religious play,” she said.

In A Divine Comedy, William Shakespeare writes a play about a “corrupt and lecherous” archbishop of the Church of England, but he has difficulty staging it. The manager of Globe Theatre refuses to have it performed, the bishop of London has a heart attack, the earl of Essex tries to intervene and eventually the Bard is summoned to meet the Queen.

“It was odd that given what a big subject it was at the time, Shakespeare had never tackled religion,” Holmes said. “And so perhaps he actually had but it was never performed.”

The play is presented as a group of actors getting together over Zoom for a read-through. Holmes said very little of the original play has been changed, and as it was written as a radio play it was easily modified to suit Zoom.

“It’s very exciting that it’s finally seeing the light of day and I just wish the friend with whom I came up with the idea was still with us because I’d love for him to be able to see it,” she said.

The final play in the program, Gabriola Squares, a local take on the long-running game show Hollywood Squares, was conceived when playwrights Rivers and Appel tossed around ideas on how to make the most of the “limited” teleconference grid theme.

In the play, Rivers and Appel play contestants on the game show, in which Gabriola celebrities and some surprise guests are asked questions about the island. All the actors were filmed separately in front of a green screen and edited together to appear to interact.

“I have this program on my Mac and it’s not really meant for this but I pushed it to the extreme,” Appel said.

“It looked so cheesy when we were filming it,” Rivers added. “It was just ridiculous and I don’t think people got the concept when they came in to do their bits, but then when they see the resulting video they’re just like, ‘Holy crap, that’s amazing. It looks like we’re actually on the set. It’s fantastic.'”

The production also includes advertisements between rounds and a simulated studio audience. Rivers said they were “very discerning” when it came to sound effects.

“When we played it back for ourselves like 100 times we’d be going like, ‘Increase the laughter here by 10 per cent. This is too loud, it sounds cheesy, let’s reduce that,’ and it took hours and hours and hours but the result you’d swear was a live show,” he said.

WHAT’S ON … Spring Forward, the Gabriola Players’ one-act play festival, takes place online on May 20 to 22 at 7 p.m. and May 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, available here.

RELATED: Gabriola theatre group live-streaming two new pandemic-themed plays

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