There has been oodles of well-deserved praise for Round House Theatre’s homegrown Homebound, an original ten-installment web series exploring life under stay-at-home orders. Penned by some of the DC area’s top playwrights and performed by a top-notch nine-member cast, Homebound is a vivid, transfixing addiction. Week after week, it tells personal stories that take on major in-the-moment issues of our times through both comedy and drama—issues well beyond being isolated at home because of COVID-19.
If you’re like this theater fan—hooked on the series so far—you might well be wondering by now about this fundamental technical question: How in the world do they do it?
To find out, I went directly to three of the theater artists assembled by Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette and Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson: Matthew M. Nielson, who does Homebound’s sound and music composition; Howard F. Burgess II, who serves as lighting advisor; and Round House resident artist Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, who plays “Maboud” and also took on responsibility for video production and cinematography. These three had not only technical know-how from live theatermaking but also skill sets in digital production to turn words on a page into a handsome viewing pleasure.
As I quickly learned, the critical set of techies on the production were the actors. Given the DMV stay-at-home orders, it was the actors who, without the aid of a crew, recorded all the video and audio themselves from their own homes. The Homebound actors not only delivered dialogue but became the streaming Zoom lens for viewers.
So how was all of this accomplished while not being in the same physical close spaces as is usual for live theater?
The timing for producing each episode of Homebound is very compressed—it is just a few days from script delivery to developing the technical aspects to shooting to final edit of what viewers see and hear. As Matt Nielson told me, “For theater, we have weeks—sometimes months—of discussion. Then, during the four to six weeks of rehearsal, we’ll get notes, all leading up to roughly a week of tech and a week of previews, during which things can change significantly. Not so with Homebound.”
Nielson needs to balance sound from actors who have recorded in different locations under different conditions; and for him, the credibility of the ambience and making the recorded dialogue clear, streamlined, and similar-sounding are critical. “One of my biggest jobs on Homebound,” he told me, “is the painstaking work of the dialogue edit—taking all of the recorded dialogue tracks and in effect ripping them from one another and the visuals—stripping them of all background noises. I make them all sound as pristine and related to each other as possible, and then add back in ambiences that help tell the story.” Nielson must work with Zoom’s latency (delay and lag) so that “dialogue is balanced to have a similar sound,” which is no simple feat. He also develops Homebound’s original music and drops in transitional music and underscoring.
Early on, I learned, there were at-a-distance video walkthroughs of the actors’ homes to see what lighting and sound existed and what might need to be added so that the production would appear effortless and natural to viewers. Harold Burgess II chatted with me about the additional equipment provided each actor to support the filming of each episode of Homebound following that virtual tour of their home “to see how it looks and its lighting.”
For Burgess, that means evaluating what the actors have available for color balance, artificial versus natural lighting, and even the time of day for the final shoot—then deciding where additional lighting is necessary. “The primary goal with this equipment was to have on hand some functional lighting, in addition to a sound recorder and other items that help to enhance the existing environmental light within each location, which was typically the performers’ homes.”
As for the equipment itself, it was to be “affordable, lightweight, and relatively simple in setup and operation. Since each episode takes place in two distinct locations, we have two tech kits that are delivered directly to the performers each week. The equipment is cleaned after or before each weekly shoot.” Typically, Burgess told me, Homebound equipment kits for the actors include additional sound and lighting instruments such as Zoom recorders to enhance the audio, various LED lighting, as well as reflectors and tripod units, with Round House staff including electricians always available to assist the actors.
Beyond his Homebound acting, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh has responsibility for video production and cinematography. That includes blocking not for the eyes of a live audience but for the lens of a cellphone camera. That means storyboarding and other pre-filming work to position the camera and other equipment. He also had editing responsibilities.
Ebrahimzadeh has a previous history with film work that gave him “an understanding of the difference between film and theater storytelling, and the details involved that are accomplished in a matter of days from script to final edited work for streaming.” That included making sure that scene changes were not jarring from one scene to another, that each episode was “tied together.” For the streaming Homebound web series, there is storyboarding, technical walk-throughs, notes taken and provided to the actors, then more walk-throughs and filming for the final editing to tie things together into the final product.
Ebrahimzadeh made clear some of the differences between a live theatrical production and a film. In theater there is a live audience within feet of the actors and the stage. The audience enters the live performance through their eyes. It is a multidimensional experience that includes the imagination. For film, the viewer enters the production through the lens of the camera. The camera lens focuses audience attention. “The camera helps to provide subtext.”
Screen time of 20 seconds or less might take hours to shoot and then develop into the final scene that viewers see and hear, Ebrahimzadeh said. As I rewatched Homebound episodes, I had a new appreciation for what it takes to create a scene in which, say, Embrahmzadeh is on the phone with the unemployment office in Episode 2 or wearing earbuds talking to his mother in Episode 4. Or in Episode 3 actor Craig Wallace playing “Craig” is chatting on his front porch and Chinna Palmer is dancing in her bedroom. I had a richer appreciation for all the technical details that went to the scenes, from Robocall voices on a phone, to bird songs and neighborhood activity, to actor Jaimie Smithson in Episode 4 in his actual basement being rather clumsy.
Ryan Rylette added: “Our first impulse was to edit Homebound internally. The experimental nature of the project, however, means that we are continually fine-tuning the process week to week, and it quickly became clear that the tight production timeline would require some external resources. Maboud connected us to Digital Cave Media, an award-winning collective of filmmakers based in Baltimore, who have provided us incredible professional support.” Digital Cave is responsible for the editing and post production of episodes.
If you haven’t already, take the opportunity to put Homebound on your calendar. You will be well rewarded. The little details make it feel so real, and multiple viewings have left me in awe of the actors and the technical team who make the web series so addicting. All associated with Homebound should be very proud.
Tuning it late? READ Michael Poandl’s episode-by-episode review, “Catching up with Round House Theatre’s ‘Homebound’ “
Round House Theatre’s Homebound premiered April 27, 2020. New episodes are posted on the Round House You Tube channel every Monday through June 29, 2020. All episodes are archived for viewing.
Homebound is part of Round House at Your House, free digital programming that is funded by new contributions from the Round House Board of Trustees.