Megan Skye Hale and Myrrh Larsen put on small Shakespeare and movement ‘immersive’ shows, even during pandemic
For Speculative Drama, it hasn’t been much of a change with the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions, because it’s a theater company that already puts on plays in an intimate environment with not very many audience members and not very big casts. Some would would call it cozy, some would say small.
The company has made changes, of course, with social distancing and capacity limitations.
“We have a safe space that we can be in and still create in with people taking risks to be near each other,” said Megan Skye Hale, the artistic director, who has partnered with Myrrh Larsen, creative director, for about six years on shows. “We’re having small shows already, up to 10 people in the shows, and it’s easier to cut that down.”
A couple years ago, Speculative Drama put on “Hamlet” in somebody’s house. (They’re big into Shakespeare, as well as wordless, movement fairy tale plays).
Usually, plays are done at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, their own venue at Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Second Avenue.
This week, even with Multnomah County in “extreme risk” for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’ll put on “Mr. Fox: a play in movement,” a hybrid show with a two-person cast and Hale and Larsen handling all the operations. It’ll be a live theater production (in front of a few audience members) on the internet with real-time Zoom pieces with other actors and immersive point-of-view camera work, all combined to explore the classic English folk tale’s story of romance, betrayal and revenge.
Usually, the nonprofit Speculative Drama can use more actors and welcome more audience members for their unique style of immersive shows, in which they use the site-specific theater space and visitors in the middle of the production to enhance the experience.
“For me, it creates this strong connection between the story and the audience,” Larsen said. “If you’re sitting at a theater, and you see an actor leaning up against a fake tree, you know it’s fake, you’re buying into the notion of it.
“To me, when I watch a show done with these principles, if you’re leaning up against a steel beam, what I’m seeing is the same thing the character is experiencing. I’m in the world with them. It makes me feel like I’m connected as an audience member.”
Larsen and Hale met about 10 years ago. Hale is a London-trained classical and movement actor, and Larsen is a sound designer and musician.
Larsen used to put on experimental shows at a bar in downtown Portland, and met Hale, after which they first collaborated on a fairy tale, “Little Briar Rose” and “it became a template for our wordless, movement fairy tale plays” Larsen said.
They opened The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven in 2015. And, then got into Shakespeare with an adaptation of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” staged as a variety show. Then, it was “Richard III,” and the rest is history.
Producing “Hamlet” in a home in Southeast Portland was maybe the most fulfilling show that Larsen has been a part of.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took over arts and entertainment life in 2020, Speculative Drama had to pivot to a hybrid live/digital production of “MacBeth” late in the year.
“There were four people in the audience,” Larsen said. “We broadcast over Zoom and had moments where the live actors showed up in real time.”
Hale and Larsen envision continuing with a Shakespeare play and a wordless movement play each year, and keep the shows intimate … or cozy … or small, whatever you want to call it.
Hale said it’s a fun way to put on a show.
“When you bring people that close to action, and keep it intimate, even if you’re farthest away you’re still only 15-20 feet away,” Hale said. “Something about that makes it less possible for you to check out in a way.
“Some watch Shakespeare on a stage; you can check out and not understand it. Our approach is very much to act like normal…