If you happen to watch the Warehouse Theatre’s new production “Fire in the Garden” without knowing what to expect, you could be forgiven for not even realizing it’s a play at all.
Like hundreds of theaters across the country, the Warehouse Theatre shut its doors at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
The intimate regional theater at 37 Augusta St. in downtown Greenville’s West End was forced to cancel its entire roster of scheduled productions for the entirety of 2020, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
But with adversity comes creative opportunity, and with “Fire in the Garden,” the new online-only production streaming this month, the theater is expanding the definition of what “theater” can be.
“I wanted this play to feel as real as possible, almost like found footage,” said Mike Sablone, Warehouse Theatre’s producing artistic director.
The premise of the play is simple: A new father is recording a birthday message to his one-year-old son. Written by award-winning playwright Ken Weitzman, “Fire in the Garden” began originally as a one-man show intended to be performed to a live audience. When he began talking with Sablone about way to ways to adapt productions in the pandemic era, Weitzman rewrote the play so that it was instead performed from a living room, a solitary man recording his thoughts on his phone.
Those who might not know they are watching a play could easily be mistaken in believing they were watching the intimate monologue of a real person, the kind of personal videos that gird the underbelly of YouTube.
“As a regional theater, we can’t replicate what Marvel is doing with their movies or even a small independent television show,” Sablone said.
He also noted that live theater translates poorly to being recorded. Watching the version of the musical “Hamilton” streaming on Disney+ might be nearly as good as the live experience, Sablone said, but the sheer cost to film live productions in such a way is impossible for the Warehouse Theatre — or just about any company other than those with the monetary clout of Disney.
The “found footage” strategy solves that problem by leaning into those limitations, specifically designing a production with them in mind. That strategy of embracing the limitations also includes the rehearsals.
The play stars Aaron Brakefield and is directed by Jay Briggs, although both have been preparing for the performance entirely remotely.
“It’s fascinating in the rehearsals from the performer’s standpoint,” Sablone said, “because Aaron is used to acting on a stage. It’s a different animal from doing a monologue on your phone in a living room, that’s for sure.”
Beyond the production-side of the play, the play itself mirrors the social upheaval of the current moment as the father wrestles with his own doubts, his hopes, his legacy and the world he is leaving his son.
Sablone said the playwright, Weitzman, channeled some of his own anxieties into the piece after the birth of his own son.
“But he’s also very funny, and he can be scathing toward himself and toward other people too, so it has a really light touch all around that happens to delve here and there into different subjects,” Sablone said. “What really grabs me is, this is a real thing. And we wanted to make it feel that real to the audience, wherever they may be.”
“Fire in the Garden” is streaming Feb. 18-28. Tickets are $10. The show can be viewed at the ticket buyer’s leaser as many times as a buyer wants. Runtime is about 45 minutes.