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'Theater In Quarantine': All The World's A Stage, Including This Closet

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the pandemic shut down theaters across the country almost a year ago, Joshua William Gelb wasn't satisfied with reading plays on Zoom like some actors. He's a physical theater guy. He wanted to perform with his full body.

JOSHUA WILLIAM GELB: When I realized that my closet happened to have the same aspect ratio as my iPhone, it was just a logical next step to paint it white and turn it into a digital theater.

SHAPIRO: He emptied out of the closet, turned it into a tiny stage and called it Theater in Quarantine. The performances stream on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GELB: Hello. Welcome to Theater in Quarantine. It's 7 o'clock here in New York City, so thank you for tuning in and joining me for...

SHAPIRO: These are innovative, physical theater pieces adapted to fit inside that closet in Gelb's studio apartment. He does everything from classic short stories to original plays. Gelb's longtime friend and choreographer, Katie Rose McLaughlin, is his co-artistic director. The entire collaboration is remote.

KATIE ROSE MCLAUGHLIN: We saw each other for the first time since lockdown in November. I think I had to drop something off.

SHAPIRO: To start our conversation over Zoom, I asked Gelb to give me a very short tour of his performance space.

GELB: So what you're seeing is my actual closet inside my East Village apartment - four-by-eight-by-two feet deep, which is to say that I can stand in it, and that's about it. This is backstage. It is right by my bedroom.

SHAPIRO: There's a French press coffee pot.

GELB: (Laughter) Yes, there is - necessity. And you can see my living room right here, the real backstage with all of our costumes and props and gear.

SHAPIRO: Katie Rose, as a physical theater practitioner, as a choreographer, was your reaction, no, there's no space to move? That's not possible. There's actually no physical freedom in that closet.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's so funny because Josh called me, and he was like, hey, I think I turned my closet into a theater, like a performance space. And I was like, what are you talking about?

SHAPIRO: To do what?

MCLAUGHLIN: (Laughter) Exactly. And so we got on Zoom, and we started playing around with ideas. And very quickly, I found out that because the space is actually so small, it highlights the body and the emotions that come with small movement so well. So we walked out of that sort of play session being like, physical theater is going to look great, and also, I think we can dive sort of even into dance a little bit.

SHAPIRO: Joshua, did it take convincing, or were you like, yes, we can dance in a space where I can't even spread my arms all the way out?

GELB: Well, in the first place, I don't know if I would have ever considered myself a dancer. And it is very tight in there. But somehow, the proportions of the closet really match the proportions of my body. I'm a small person. So in some ways, the limits of the closet allowed us to work off the space in a really tactile way.

SHAPIRO: So just to give listeners an example, like, there are pieces where you really play with gravity. Like, you rotate the image of the closet, and you as a performer are suddenly pulled towards the side or the top or the bottom.

GELB: I think that was the first major discovery of the closet, is that we could actually do things digitally that we couldn't do on stage.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. Like, for example, Josh put a handle up on one of the walls of the closet. And he can actually, like, lift himself up in space in a way that, like, just sort of boggles the mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GELB: (As character) We are light and sound. That is what is perceived. Hit the right wavelength, and something can happen - a shift, a change, a catastrophe.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this experience is going to change the way you approach choreography post-quarantine when you have a huge stage that people can jete across?

MCLAUGHLIN: Most definitely. The one thing that I noticed right away was that I had to completely change the way I talk about movement and the way I teach it because I can't just, you know, go into Josh's space and be like, Josh, actually, you have to do it this way. I have to use my words. And it's also made us be a little bit more collaborative because often, I'll be like, Josh, I want you to do this movement. He'll do something which is really different than what I asked him to do or what I thought he was going to do, so then we can just collaborate moving forward. So that seems really exciting.

SHAPIRO: The pieces that you've done are so wildly different from one another. I mean, there's an adaptation of a piece by Franz Kafka.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GELB: (As character) Awfully thin walls in this building, walls that betray the honest and shield fraud.

SHAPIRO: There's an original musical about Mother Teresa.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

HEATHER CHRISTIAN: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: The music is by Heather Christian.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

CHRISTIAN: (Singing) So I only speak for me, as I am in the world, not of it. To choose poverty, we love it for its clarity.

SHAPIRO: What do you think makes something work in this space? What do they have in common?

GELB: We like to say that everything we're doing is quarantine adjacent.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You mean thematically?

GELB: Yes, exactly.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah (laughter).

GELB: Since the shutdown last March, we have all been trapped in various degrees of boxes - whether it's these Zoom boxes or our apartments or our homes. And in some ways, the closet is just a metaphor for that isolation that we've all been feeling. We try not to hit the nail too hard on the head, although our last piece, Blood Meal, was certainly about a couple who's been in quarantine because of a bedbug infestation.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GELB: (As character) I put my clothes in the dryer. I do my oatmeal baths. I spray myself with deep chemicals. I eat the beets with the vinegar. I don't walk on the carpet because of the egg sack thing.

SHAPIRO: It made my skin crawl, which I think was the intention, but yeah.

MCLAUGHLIN: (Laughter) Yes, yes, yes.

GELB: So in some ways, we are always dealing with these, you know, themes of isolation and loneliness. That being said, we've been really excited to keep expanding. We started off with just me in a closet doing prerecorded videos. Then we started doing live performance. We've done a musical, and we've worked with another performer in a remote closet and have synchronized those two feeds. You know, within, again, eight square feet, we keep expanding the idea of what's possible.

MCLAUGHLIN: And I feel like every time we make something, we're like, oh, next time, next time. And we just - we haven't hit any sort of wall yet.

SHAPIRO: Except for the walls that you hit literally every time you extend your hands.

MCLAUGHLIN: (Laughter).

GELB: We hit walls.

MCLAUGHLIN: Josh has the bruises to prove that.

SHAPIRO: Joshua...

GELB: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Where are your clothes?

GELB: (Laughter) Well, I'm very lucky to be a New Yorker with two closets.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness. Wow.

GELB: This closet was really where I was keeping my air conditioner and, you know, comforter, winter sweaters. So all of that's gone under the bed and behind the couch. Literally every area that I can possibly store something has been stuffed not only with what I had before, but with all of the props and costumes and set pieces that we keep acquiring.

SHAPIRO: Joshua William Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin are the artistic directors of Theater in Quarantine. Thank you for talking with us.

GELB: Thank you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you so much for having us.

SHAPIRO: And you can see all of their shows at the YouTube channel for Theater in Quarantine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BOXES")

MALVINA REYNOLDS: (Singing) Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes, all the same. There's a pink one and a green one and the blue one and a yellow one. And they're all... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.