‘Humans’ to ‘Zoomans’: Olney Theatre Center stages virtual production

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Olney Theatre's 'The Humans'

Six months ago, Olney Theatre Center was gearing up for its play “The Humans.”

That came to a screeching halt when theaters shut down due to the pandemic.

“We were about 10 days into rehearsal,” director Aaron Posner told WTOP. “About 50 to 70% of the set was built, costumes were designed, lighting plots were in, everything was moving pretty rapidly. … We had what I hoped would be a pause. That turned out not to be a pause, but that’s where we were, right in the middle of things.”

Instead, they’ve converted it into a virtual streaming event now through Oct. 4.

“The ‘Zoomans’ is how we were talking about it while we were shooting it,” Posner said. “This isn’t just a Zoom reading, but something significantly enhanced from that.”

Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play follows Erik and Deirdre Blake, who travel from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a basement apartment in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown to have Thanksgiving dinner with their daughter Brigid, her boyfriend Richard, their other daughter Aimee and ailing grandma Momo.

“It sits right there in the core, great American family dramas,” Posner said. “It follows a kind of Arthur Miller tradition, even a Chekhov tradition in that it’s not about big actions, it’s not a ton of plot, it’s just a family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner. He was really looking at just how hard things were getting for regular families in America.”

Though it was written in 2015, it still speaks to the moment.

“The show is so timely,” Posner said. “It feels like with every new crisis, sadly it gets more timely. … We felt like we were telling a story that was important and well worth telling at this time. … The play has nothing to do with corona[virus], but it does have to do with isolation and it does have to do with a financial crisis.”

The virtual presentation was filmed in different locations.

“Everyone recording on video cameras, each individually in their own home,” Posner said. “We were creating six tiny film studios in people’s homes to do an editable version of it. So, this event ends up sitting someplace in a unique ground between a Zoom conversation and a staged performance.”

As a brisk one-act play, the material is uniquely suited for the digital realm.

“What you have is a very funny, very quirky, very human story,” Posner said. “It’s on one set in one location … which puts it way, way, way better than the kind of Zoom reading where you’re just looking at talking heads in a box. … It’s 100 minutes of real time event and there are no jumps. It’s just these people living.”

The virtual show costs $35 to help support a struggling industry.

“It’s for an excellent cause,” Posner said. “This is a devastating time in the professional theater. … So many theater artists, when they are not working in theater, they’re often working in service industries that have also been decimated. So there are so many people struggling so deeply right now — and all of the theaters are struggling.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with director Aaron Posner (Full Interview)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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