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PTC asks ‘Who Killed Zolan Mize?’ - and you can answer!

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BANGOR – A hilarious whodunit is coming your way courtesy of Penobscot Theatre Company!

PTC continues their innovative and industrious response to the current circumstances with their presentation of “Who Killed Zolan Mize?” The latest entry in the theatre’s ongoing Digitus Theatrum mainstage season, it’s an interactive murder mystery that will be livestreaming beginning on March 11 and running through April 3. To purchase a link or to find more information, visit the PTC website at wwws.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.

The show is the brainchild of Rachel and Brendan Powers, a married pair of Florida-based actors who are likely familiar to area audiences; both have graced the Bangor Opera House stage in recent years – Rachel in the theatre’s 2018 production of Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Ugly Lies the Bone” and Brendan in both Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (2014) and Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” (2015).

“Who Killed Zolan Mize?” lets audiences engage in the fun as they watch a pair of detectives question six quirky suspects. Viewers are invited to share ideas and observations with their fellow detectives along the way in the “Clues Journal,” as well as joining into a series of in-home scavenger hunts. Once all the evidence is in, audience members share their thoughts on the case with the detectives and a vote is held. The suspect with the most votes wins (or loses, I suppose, depending on your perspective).

Following each performance will be a post-show talkback. This is a chance for audiences to ask Rachel and Brendan any questions they may have, both about the show and about the pair’s own experiences in the theatre and screen acting industries.

(A personal note: having worked with both Rachel and Brendan on shows in the past, I can vouch for the fact that they are not only talented and tremendously knowledgeable, but also among the kindest, most genuine folks you’re ever likely to find. If you see the show, stick around – you’ll enjoy what they have to say, whatever that winds up being.)

Live performance has been one of the hardest-hit industries over the now-yearlong course of the pandemic; many performing artists have been left adrift, without the chance to pursue their craft or make a living. Rachel and Brendan were among them, having been in final rehearsals for a show before the theatre shut down one day before preview performances were set to begin. Like with so many of their peers, their opportunities vanished almost overnight.

So they decided to make opportunities of their own. Specifically, they turned a closet in their home into the smallest performance space you could imagine and started doing readings of plays via streaming.

And thus, tiny_Theatre was born!

Since late March of last year, Rachel and Brendan have been offering up live professional theatre to the masses, all of it streamed from, well … a tiny theatre! It was a chance for them to continue doing what they love while adapting to the unfortunate realities of the circumstances.

From there, after the initial success of tiny_Theatre, the pair began thinking about other ways to explore this new form of theatrical expression. Those thoughts led to the creation of “Who Killed Zolan Mize?” This weird and hilarious interactive romp quickly became a popular choice on AirBnB’s Online Experiences, with audiences from all over coming together in an effort to solve the mystery!

And now, PTC audiences will get their own chance to crack this case.

Brendan and Rachel were kind enough to share some of their thoughts with The Maine Edge regarding how tiny_Theatre came about, how a show like “Zolan Mize” came to be and some of the challenges that have come from dealing with this new performance paradigm.

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How did tiny_Theatre come about? What’s the origin story?

A year ago, we were in final rehearsals for “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Florida Repertory Theatre, where we are members of the professional Acting Ensemble. It was set to be a stunning production in every aspect and we could not wait to present this to audiences. Yet on March 16th - one day before we started preview performances - the theatre suspended all programming due to COVID. As crushing as the decision was, it was absolutely the right and necessary thing to do.

So we started sheltering in place in our home with all of this built-up performance energy and nowhere to channel it. Rach got the idea to find some kind of artistic outlet by contacting playwrights we’ve met from our 20-plus years in the industry, and asking them if they would let us read some of their plays on Facebook Live from our house - Rach turned our back bedroom closet into a “tiny Theatre” using an old Ikea curtain, some Christmas lights and some pillows.

On March 21, 2020 the first episode of tiny_Theatre ran on Facebook Live. To date, we have done almost 100 episodes and have worked with over 50 playwrights from around the world. Some are emerging writers and others are well-established, internationally known Tony Award Winners and Pulitzer Prize nominees! We even received a feature article in American Theatre Magazine.

In what ways do you think this sort of work might inform your process going forward? Do you think this experience will shape how you approach the work when we’re live and in person again? 

In all truth, the whole live and in person concept is so out of our heads right now given the unpredictability of things and our total immersion in all things virtual and online, not really sure how to answer this right now. 

There’s an intimacy of collaboration that comes with a project like this. What has it been like to work so constantly and closely with one another over the past year? We met in the rehearsal room 13 years ago and have continued to work very closely with each other over the years on all sorts of projects. We are lucky to be a part of a professional ensemble which allows us to be in shows together. So there have been many instances where we are in rehearsals all day together and then go home together. We are used to always being in the same space! So, in an odd way, this past year has not been all that different from what we are accustomed to.

Indeed, our compatibility has been key in all this; things would not have evolved the way they have over this past year if we didn’t have an excellent working relationship and friendship - which is not so say that “creative tension” doesn’t creep in on occasion, as it does in many collaborations, but out of those moments comes a deeper understanding and respect for each others’ talents and the final product is better for it.

What informs the choices that you make for your TT selections? Are there any specific things that you look for? Or is it more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing?

We welcome anyone to submit a play for consideration and we’ve seen a huge number of submissions. The variety of stories is astounding -- comedies, dramas, serio-comic, absurdist, monologues, historical, hot-button topics, etc. Our submissions for our March Madness one play reading a day of “Tiny Wonders” (one-page plays) were so many that we are taking it into April.

What are your thoughts re: the possible future of TT? Do you think this effort will continue in some form even after theaters reopen?

We would hate to simply let it fade away, especially having seen how incredible it has been for us, for playwrights, and for those viewers who watch. We may not be able to do it with the frequency that we are currently doing it, but we’d like to think that tiny_Theatre will live on in some capacity. We hope that in the future we may have the opportunity to work with these playwrights on one of their plays when live theatre-going returns. 

You’ve spent this past year basically working without a net as you’ve more or less invented this thing from scratch as you’ve gone. Any advice for the creatives out there looking to follow in your footsteps and create opportunities of their own?

Rach is the driving force behind the tiny_Theatre play readings and from there we have surprised ourselves by how much we have accomplished. We like to say “Creativity Finds A Way!” Our advice to other creatives would be that things are possible - but be prepared to face some hurdles along the way that will require hard work, research, flexibility and patience. We’re proud when we get reviews for “Who Killed Zolan Mize?” that say there is nothing like it on AirBnB Online Experiences --- we believe in many ways that’s because the complexity and intense hard work that went into it is not something most folks would be interested in taking on.

An interactive live streaming murder mystery is one hell of a way to think outside the box. What prompted you to start developing “Zolan Mize?”

As AirBnB superhosts for our 1946 duplex in Fort Myers, all our bookings for Spring 2020 were cancelled when Covid hit. It was a major revenue loss and that, paired with the unions postponing or cancelling performance contracts for tv, film and theatre, put us (like so many) in a very precarious position. We had to find some kind of revenue-producing project.

We were lucky to attend a webinar hosted by the NYC-based organization The Actors’ Fund, in which they sought to help out-of-work professional creatives find potential income by using their talents as part of AirBnB Online Experiences. We immediately knew that was our answer and we started brainstorming. AirBnB Online Experiences was really interested in offering experiences that would connect and engage viewers, so the idea of a murder mystery came to mind.

We were inspired by the worldwide hit “Shear Madness” – with which PTC audience members are familiar, which offers fun opportunities for audience engagement. As for the basic storyline of Zolan Mize, I started going through notebooks I’ve kept over the years with story ideas and found one from 25 years ago with the premise of a funny investigation where all the suspects had very similar sounding names.

How long did it take to get the show into its current state? And how has it evolved since you began doing it?

We started writing in June 2020 and launched on the AirBnB platform on October 1 – to date we have done 130 performances! The script was finalized by late summer but many, many weeks were spent figuring out how to incorporate the technical aspects of the production. That whole saga is a one-hour interview in itself! But we hired a fantastic artist, Ansley Gayton, who had been a tech intern at Florida Rep and she was instrumental in helping us get things up and going. She became our showrunner and now oversees every performance from behind the scenes, executing all the tech elements to make the experience run smoothly.

The biggest growth has been in our adeptness with playing on Zoom - with a two-camera setup - and engaging with audience members while trying to perform.  Rachel is on the new Disney + series “The Right Stuff,” but so much of our careers sit strongly rooted in live theatre, so this was a very different type of performing that took some getting used to.

Can you give us a sense of how exactly the show works? What are the logistical challenges that come with creating something that is both remotely accessible and interactive? What are some of the struggles that come with putting together this project? Did you find yourselves forced to work out novel solutions to unexpected obstacles?

Allen, the answer to these questions could rival a doctoral thesis! Trying to create a live theatre experience on a platform not intended for live theatre was a HERCULEAN task, and kudos to Rachel and Ansley for doing so much of the heavy lifting in that area. It was extremely challenging but thanks to their incredible tenacity, we prevailed! Truly, we could talk for an hour about the problems that arose, the endless troubleshooting and the joy of conquering hurdles. It really is why I don’t think there are a lot of similar experiences out there like ours. It was an incredible amount of work to create.

How did this partnership with PTC come about? And what are some things that viewers can expect going into Zolan Mize? 

We are grateful to Bari Newport who saw the show and thought it could be a great fit for PTC audiences. PTC has blazed quite an inspiring trail by being one of the few theatres in the country to forge ahead and produce a full season despite enormous obstacles presented by COVID. We are honored to be part of this auspicious achievement.

People going to “Who Killed Zolan Mize?” should know this isn’t your traditional murder mystery - after all, they end up voting to determine which suspect did the deed, and in the middle of the adventure you’re welcome to participate in some in-home scavenger hunts! Also, we greatly encourage that they come to the experience with a sense of PLAY! We created this as a goofy, comic escape and their engagement in the piece can have a significant effect on the overall experience.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 March 2021 11:14

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