Producing on stage for the small screen: How Round House did it

A visit with the creative team as it wraps its first virtual season with 'We're Gonna Die' (now extended through July 25)

When in-person performance became impossible, pivoting to video became imperative—and all over town, theaters turned into soundstages. For this inside look at how that happened at Round House Theatre, DC Metro Theater Arts thanks Associate Managing Director Jasmine Jiang and Associate Artist Naysan Mojgani.

When COVID-19 shut down theaters across the country, countless artists were immediately out of work for an unforeseeable length of time. However, Bethesda’s Round House Theatre was able to quickly pivot to virtual content; their 10-part webseries Homebound premiered in late April. Beginning in fall 2021, Round House continued with a presentation of Leila Buck and Tamilla Woodard’s American Dreams (co-produced with Working Theater and other national partners), the well-received festival The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence (in partnership with McCarter Theatre Center), and the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist (co-produced with Marin Theatre Company).

Filming in progress for Round House Theatre’s ‘We’re Gonna Die.’ Photo by Paige Hernandez.

In planning for spring 2021, Artistic Director Ryan Rilette and then-Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson read script after script, unsure of exactly what they were looking for…until We’re Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee. We’re Gonna Die—which premiered in 2011 at Joe’s Pub in New York, co-produced by 13P and Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company—is half pop concert and half solo confessional, with Lee offering a series of monologues about tragic personal events. But rather than bleak nihilism, the play offers a sense of comfort, urging the viewer to accept the sorrows that are unavoidable parts of being human.

When Rilette and Watson read the script, Rilette says, it was immediately clear that the play resonated with the current moment. “This was what our audience—and what we—needed. The intimate connection of solo storytelling, and the focus on healing and renewal that we’ve been providing these last few months, that was all inspired by reading We’re Gonna Die.”

Round House’s spring productions consisted of Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul, directed by Craig Wallace; Lucy Alibar’s Throw Me On the Burnpile and Light Me Up, directed by Rilette; and We’re Gonna Die, directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez. Each has been released online, with We’re Gonna Die currently streaming through July 11. Although each was directed by a different artist, the stage manager, design team, and director of photography were consistent across the season. After filming We’re Gonna Die, that core team talked about the process of making theater under such extraordinary circumstances.

Director of Photography Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (left) with ‘We’re Gonna Die’ cast members Jason Wilson, Manny Arciniega, Regina Aquino, Matthew Schleigh, and Laura Van Duzer. Photo by Paige Hernandez.

How did the pandemic affect your working process? What were the biggest challenges of this season?

Matthew Nielson, Sound Designer: I came in with a background in theater and film, so suddenly the two came together nicely. These projects let me be part of the creative process in the theater, and then go home and do the post-production on it. It’s an interesting mix of the two.

Che Wernsman, Stage Manager: As a stage manager, I try to create a welcoming place: coffee, snacks, hugs, physical and emotional contact. The emotional is still there—even heightened—but the PPE and distancing is an adjustment, because you want to reconnect. And we learned how to, even with these requirements in place, and everyone is just so happy to be back and creating again.

Paige Hathaway, Scenic Designer: So much of the process is sped up. What would normally take six months, we did in one. But most of us didn’t have anything else on our plate—so we could be efficient and just compress the timeline.

Harold Burgess, Lighting Designer: The original idea was that these three shows would share the same basic set and light plot, with just a little reconfiguration. That went out the window pretty quickly once we got into the design process. Each of them needed their own idea.

In tech rehearsals for Round House Theatre’s ‘We’re Gonna Die’: Stage Manager Che Wernsman, Sound Designer Matt Nielsen, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway. Photos by Paige Hernandez.

What was your proudest moment this season?

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Director of Photography: We weren’t trying to make a movie—it should feel like you’re going to a play. Everything I did was based on that conceit. So my proudest moment was after A Boy and His Soul when, without any prompting, [playwright] Colman Domingo said, “It felt like going to the theater.” I was over the moon.

Ivania Stack, Costume Designer: I’m defining my personal ethos as a designer, so I’ve been thinking a lot about our tendency—especially right now—to just order everything on Amazon. I think that we have to edge away from that, so for each of these shows, I made sure at least one thing was bought from a small business owned by a person of color.

Che: Those moments when we’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember how to do this.” Everything has felt like a struggle getting started again, but calling a cue sequence? I know how to do that. And seeing how these shows have been received by audiences reminds us that we’re doing it for a really good reason. It matters. We’re telling great stories, and it’s great to be a part of that.

Regina Aquino (center) as the Singer with the Chance Club’s Jason Wilson, Laura Van Duzer, Matthew Schleigh, and Manny Arciniega in Young Jean Lee’s ‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Round House Theatre. Photo by Harold F. Burgess II.

Why should everybody watch We’re Gonna Die right now?

Ivania: We’ve lost people, or people we love are becoming sick—not just COVID, but other things, too, and… it’s hard, especially when you’re pacing around your own home. How do you think about that, and how do you face that with honesty and not just fear it? That’s what this play is all about. Going to your first concert after being shut in your home for a year, and the concert is telling you, “It’s okay. We’re all here. We’re gonna rock out and have a great time.”

Matthew: It’s been a hard year and a half for everybody. And this show speaks to that so directly and precisely. I mean, one of the songs is “Horrible Things Happen All the Time!” But it also throws a little humor into it and says that that’s the way it is, and that’s okay, and we have to just keep rolling with it.

Paige: It’s incredibly empowering, and by the end it’s so joyful. It’s like, this wonderful punk rock uplifting experience.

Harold: Also, just to be immersed into a performance. It’s so much more compelling than just looking at Netflix. Hopefully we’ll get people back in the theater soon, but on film, it’s still alive. It’s still theater.

EXTENDED: Round House Theatre’s production of We’re Gonna Die is available for on-demand streaming through July 25, 2021. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling 240.644.1100 or ordering online.

SEE ALSO:
Three lauded local actors to go solo in spring season from Round House
‘A Boy and His Soul,’ heartwarming and buoyant, from Round House review by Kendall Mostafavi
In a child’s voice, a magical and moving portrait of the South from Round House review of Throw Me On the Burnpile and Light Me Up by Sophia Howes
‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Round House is a thin take on a big theme review by Sophia Howes

RELATED:
How does ‘Homebound’ happen? A peek behind the screens interviews about Round House Theatre’s original 10-part webseries by David Siegel

Special thanks for coordinating this coverage to Amy Killion.

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