By Julia Stumbaugh
At the beginning of November, director Amalia Oswald helped commission her friend, New York playwright Matt Minnicino, to write Live Arts’ 2020 holiday play.
The play had to be entertaining for adults, hilarious to children, inclusive of different holidays, and designed not for a stage, but for a Zoom webinar. Most importantly, it had to be finished in under a month.
And so Minnicino, who volunteered at Live Arts while a student at UVA, wrote IN HINDSIGHT, MAYBE GHOSTS WERE A BAD IDEA: A Holiday Play in Three Spirits in just three weeks.
The show, which Oswald describes as a cross between Shrek and What We Do in the Shadows, will be performed in the Live Arts building. Unlike usual productions, however, actors will be in their own individual rooms. Decked in wigs and armed with props, they will peer into their cameras as they talk to each other—and to the audience watching at home.
“We really want to make it seem more like these actors are reading from a storybook, and really presenting this to their audience members, and less of we’re just filming a performance,” Oswald says.
If this is a storybook, it’s one the audience won’t have read before. The play features three ghosts who are tasked with haunting a selfish medieval princess. Its plot is similar to A Christmas Carol, if Scrooge’s spirits were hilariously inept at their jobs.
“It’s really a love letter to why we love doing things, why theater is still alive during COVID, why we’re making plays even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Oswald says. “Because people love performing, people love to be silly, and that’s really what this play is.”
Among the cast are a mother and father acting alongside their kids, as well as a local musician. Josh Tucker will wield his bouzouki, a pear-shaped Grecian guitar, as he binds the story together with Tudor-era Christmas carols.
“We have so many great musicians and so much musical talent,” Oswald says. “We wanted to have someone playing an instrument…music is so important in Charlottesville.”
Gluing together all the mismatched elements of the play is a challenge, especially since Oswald won’t be in the same building as her actors until tech week.
“We’ve been doing a lot of run-throughs and read-throughs,” Oswald says. “Because it is a staged reading, the most important thing is not being off-book. It’s really understanding and knowing the language of the play, and understanding what the moments are, and when things are going to happen.”
That task is even more challenging when it comes to the hour-long, newborn script. It was still being edited on the spot during the cast’s video conference run-throughs, as Oswald and Minnicino worked to shape the play around each actor’s unique strengths.
“You’re getting a script that’s still being worked, there are still edits happening,” Oswald says. “There really isn’t that kind of finalization that you feel when you walk into a rehearsal room for a script that’s been written 200 years ago.”
The last-second line changes, the dogs barking in the background of home rehearsals, the intense preparation of the Live Arts space—Oswald says it will all be worth it if IN HINDSIGHT can give audiences at least one holiday tradition that hasn’t been canceled when it premieres on December 17.
“I think people are excited that they have this event where they can experience the same thing, especially because it’s performed live every night…that means that these people who can’t get together in person still get to experience something very special,” Oswald says. “It’s never repeated. It’s never the same. And they still get to have that kind of holiday magic.”