The cast couldn’t believe it. Gathered outside an isolated cabin in the Poconos last month, actors, technicians, directors, and managers heard the screams.
What was making that sound? Could it be more fitting?
When the pandemic started last spring, Wilma Theater professionals — like theater people everywhere — had scrambled to fulfill the First Commandment of Stage. The Show Must Go On.
So, as the world came to know more about the virus and quarantining, Wilma’s leaders decided to create Wilma’s own theatrical bubble to film a site-specific play: 16 cast and crew members, strict protocol, three weeks in the Pennsylvania mountains.
The play, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, runs online Dec. 1 through Dec. 13 via Wilma’s website. In this dark drama, four graduates of a conservative Catholic college reunite for a late-night backyard party at a remote Wyoming cabin. The script calls for an off-stage, unidentified threatening noise. It adds to the tension — ominous, unknown.
And there in the Poconos, “all of a sudden you’d hear something that sounded like a person being murdered in the woods,” said actor Mary Elizabeth “MB” Scallen, who plays the college president. “It was a kind of screaming. It was scary.”
That was no sound effect. It was foxes, actual foxes, actually screaming.
The foxes were just about the only thing that wasn’t part of the multi-hundred-page contract signed between Wilma and SAG-AFRTA, the film union, detailing how things would go down, including many pages of provisions for COVID safety.
“We wanted to find a way to make work that would allow the artists to feel secure in their safety and enable them to focus on the work itself,” said Kellie Mecleary, producing director.
Prior to convening for the shoot, everyone would be tested and strictly quarantined at home during Zoom rehearsals. Then, after negative tests, they’d live together for nearly three weeks while filming the play.
“My memory is that [the idea] came from Blanka,” Mecleary said, speaking of Blanka Zizka, the Wilma’s founding artistic director who also directs Heroes. “She started getting excited about it artistically — about doing a site-specific play.”
The play itself is searing, grounded in Arbery’s background growing up as the child of conservative Catholics, now both professors at Wyoming Catholic College.
In addition to Scallen, as college president, the characters are four former classmates, including her daughter — all from a conservative Catholic academic tradition and all of whom voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but for different reasons.
Teresa, played by Sarah Gliko, is a devotee of Steve Bannon, while Jered McLenigan, as Justin, regularly prays the rosary, fearing that Christianity’s power in the world is ebbing. Justin Jain and Campbell O’Hare take on the roles of Kevin, who is tortured by his worldly desires, and Emily, who counts among her friends a drag queen and a staffer at Planned Parenthood.
“They really start digging into how you find your way forward as very traditional Christians, with very conservative social views, trying to fit in to their places in a divided America,” Scallen said. “The hovering question is how you retain a conservative traditional identity in America today.”
Over the course of the night, their friendships and world views unravel.
That’s why staffers had to search carefully for the perfect Airbnb house — something woodsy with a simple back patio that could evoke Wyoming. It had to be away from neighbors, since the play, which takes place after dark, would be filmed at night with bright lights and noise.
Staffers found their “set” near Lehighton in Carbon County, then rented three more houses within commuting distance to hold the rest of cast and crew — with enough bedrooms for everyone, plus, at the Lehighton house, room for film-editing and production.
“I was in charge of making sure all the houses were set,” Mecleary said. “Food was on my plate. Figuring out carpooling. Once we were on site, I was coordinating with the staff back in Philly and our COVID safety officer.”
Arriving Oct. 13, the group practiced social distancing. They could only remove masks in their own “homes,” with their mini-pods, or when rehearsing. On set, they had to stick with their groups.
“After the first 10 days we were allowed to take our masks off and that’s when we were allowed to hug,” Scallen said. Everyone lined up for a hug from “Miss Pat,” Patreshettarlini Adams, Wilma’s beloved stage manager and, as Zizka said, “the Queen of Hugging.”
Caterers brought in dinners to be served at the set house, with meat and vegetarian/vegan options. Cast and crew prepared their own breakfasts, lunches, and post-rehearsal midnight snacks in their Airbnbs — making requests to Mecleary, who arranged for deliveries.
“The food requests got less healthy as time went on,” Mecleary said. “At first it was fresh vegetables and fruits and grains and nuts. Then it was, `Could we get frozen pizzas and that cereal I loved when I was a kid?’” Total food cost: $10,000.
The days skewed late. In the mornings, people worked on individual projects. Some who are teachers held classes via Zoom. Around 4 p.m., they’d gather at the Lehighton house. Rehearsing in the dark and cold required layers of long underwear, blankets, and endless cups of hot tea.
When filming ended, a second round of work began, with producers reviewing the footage with Zizka.
People stayed up late — 3 in the morning. “For me, it was like being back in college again, really hilarious,” said Scallen, the oldest actor. “Someone would yell `Soft pants,’ and we’d all run upstairs and put on soft pants. There was not what you’d call sartorial elegance in our housing.”
Living together, the actors became addicted to watching The Great British Baking Show. “Because the material of the play was demanding, it was kind of a relief to worry about someone’s croissants instead of the state of America,” Scallen said.
“It was a very idealistic time. Coming together was emotional and beautiful,” Zizka said. “Working together was emotional and beautiful. We had not been able to see each other for such a long time.”
The bubble dynamics also informed the production, especially given the intimacy created by camera close-ups, different from work on a stage.
“The actors were living in one house, so the play was on their mind. They kept taking about it. They got to know their characters much more and each other’s characters much more,” Zizka said.
“When I was young,” she said, “I always wanted to be in a commune. I wanted to live and work together making theater with a group of people. And now in that old age, I was given that opportunity.”
Heroes of the Fourth Turning