American Players Theatre goes digital with film ‘Talk to Me: Love in the Time of COVID’

Short film came together quickly over Zoom
Apt Actors Film
The short film "Love in the Time of COVID-19" starring several APT actors was filmed using the conferencing call app Zoom.

You won’t be able to see any of your favorite American Players Theatre actors on stage in Spring Green for the foreseeable future. Last week the company announced it was delaying the June 1 start of its 2020 season.

But here’s the good news: You can see a bunch of them right now in a free online film project that’s just about perfect for our current Zoom and web-conferencing reality.

Tracy Michelle Arnold, Marcus Truschinski, James Ridge, Colleen Madden, Kelsey Brennan, Melisa Pereyra, Jeb Burris and Gavin Lawrence are among the cast members of “Talk to Me: Love in the Time of COVID,” a project conceived by local filmmaker-producers Curt Hanke and Jack Whaley. The 15-minute film, watchable at talktomefilm.com, features Arnold as a counselor offering videotherapy to a host of dysfunctional patients.

And the entire project was filmed remotely using Zoom.

“Jack and I had been playing around with ideas — how do you adapt to a normal where you never leave your house?” Hanke says. “Therapy becomes a proxy for human interaction.”

Whaley and Hanke have known each other for a few years and have worked at the same local company for the last two. The idea started with a text message, in which Hanke floated the idea of a film about a couple suddenly forced to resolve their relationship issues over Zoom. Whaley, who grew up in Spring Green, immediately thought of the handful of APT married actors who were already living together.

“This was a case where the limitations we were facing were actually a good thing,” Whaley says.

Whaley reached out to Arnold and Truschinki, and the project began to snowball from there. Over the course of a mere 27 days — the initial table read (over Zoom, naturally), casting and filming only took eight – “Talk to Me” went from concept to complete.

Given technical limitations, Whaley had to let go of some creative control. (“This is by no means going to go on my cinematic reel,” he jokes.) But rather than wrangle with scratchy Zoom audio, technician Dustin Harmon trekked to the yards and porches of the actors’ houses, maneuvering a sanitized boom mic through the window to capture professionally recorded sound.

“If you have good audio, your mind forgives bad visuals,” says Hanke.

“Talk to Me” offers tons of comedy gold. There’s the pinched and steely stare Jim Ridge’s character offers as Madden, his real-life spouse, waxes rhapsodic about their characters’, um, shared love of John Grisham. There’s the “Did you just say the quiet part out loud?” look of disbelief Pereyra’s character shoots the camera when Burris’ character cuts to the root of their characters’ relationship problems. Truschinski’s devastated dumpee is hilarious, and Lawrence mugs it up as a COVID-19 hypochrondriac.

Our self-isolation nation is sure to recognize plenty of familiar touches, from the Zoom bombs to the natural tension that comes from being cooped up in a house together for a month.

“We’re all craving joy and light in these dark times,” Hanke says. “We were aiming to bring the audience some heart and humor.”

Hanke and Whaley produced “Talk to Me” pro bono on their evenings and weekends. The film includes a call to action to support APT and, through the Curtain Up Fund, provide financial assistance to other out-of-work professional actors and stage managers across the country.

While APT’s employees (actors, staff and administrators) are still being paid, the fate of the 2020 season remains in doubt. And, like most businesses, the company expects to take a serious financial hit from the pandemic.

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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