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North Avenue at the Blank (some thoughts)

February 2021

I like to think that this online production of North Avenue came together at the right time, the perfect time. I actually submitted the play to the Blank Theatre in 2018. When I first sent it, the theatre replied, asking me whether I’d be able to get out to Los Angeles to be part of making the play, should it be chosen. I told them absolutely I would. I wasn’t making a ton of money, so I had no clue how that would happen, but I was determined to be there, if I had to be. I love making theatre anyway, but this was a chance to do it far away from where I’d ever done it in Maryland and New Jersey and get my work up in front of an audience I thought it was take years to reach. A way would be made somehow.

Then … nothing. I didn’t hear anything back. I figured the play didn’t make it. That was cool. I’d already received radio silence back or no thank you back from other theatres about the play. And other plays I’ve written.  That’s part of the business. Not everybody will like your work. And so on. I kept revising and submitting. That’s what they say to do.

Fast forward a couple of years to last fall and unexpectedly, I receive an email, telling me that the play is a finalist for the Living Room Series.

A finalist? After 2 1/2 years? Had they lost the play, perhaps before reading it, and found it again?

Didn’t matter. Whatever the reason was, it was a finalist for a spot to be produced. Except this time, I wouldn’t have to figure out how to get to California to participate. As we all know, theatre, in general had been shut down since the beginning of Covid in the United States. The theatre that was being produced was being done online in some way. This production, were my play to be chosen, would be online like the others, completely made and presented via some kind of streaming. I’d be able to participate in making the play from home. And if I did win, my folks would be able to see the play without having to get on a plane, get a hotel, etc.

Spoiler alert: the play was chosen.

Even though I wasn’t able to go to California, I was able to still contribute and work with the team to make a really good show. It was a great team. I’m really honored to have had the chance to play in this sandbox with them. I really enjoyed the choices the actors made and Shelli’s direction. She’s from D.C. and she’s (probably obviously) been to Baltimore (I never conceive of D.C. folks coming to Baltimore outside of getting ready to move to Baltimore because they’re being priced out of D.C.), so she came in with an understanding of the world of the play. Still, she gave me space to flesh some of the things out, give some of my own research to the actors, and send some pictures of Baltimore that I thought would help the actors (the pictures are in some of the flyers, which you can see on pretty much all of our IG accounts, and a few show up in the play itself). She also let me persuade the actors not to do a Baltimore accent if they didn’t think they could pull it off, quickly. So, don’t be on the lookout for Baltimore accents in this production. Nor should you send me any DMs asking me to record myself or go live, saying “two” or “dog” or anything like that.

We also didn’t have the usual amount of rehearsal time together that you get in the theatre. So, the actors couldn’t have take after take to develop chemistry, gain insights, and test out new choices, together. Regardless, they did a great job under Shelli’s direction to find out how they related to the world of the play, the circumstances, and each other.

Shelli also gave me back some great notes from herself and the cast about things that weren’t clear, both in the story and in the world of the play. From their feedback and from listening to the play, I made some pretty good changes. Part of the Blank’s reason for this series is to help playwrights to develop their work and I did develop the play further during this process. So, I’m grateful for that.

… and for the process of recording the play. That alone was worth submitting.

Bree Pavey, the Blank’s Producing Director, used a combination of technologies to record the play while making sure the actors could all see each other. Not all of the actors were in California. Two were on the East Coast. The production required high speed Internet and while there were some hiccups, she was able to get all the footage she needed to edit. One actor’s Internet at home was so slow that they had to record their performance somewhere else. The Internet in their neighborhood is really slow. Ironically, I was reminded of the fight students at City just went through with Comcast to increase speeds for at-home learning, as a result of schools shifting to remote instruction during the last year.

I was surprised how much I got to geek out as they sent out individual OBS links to the actors. I’m still learning about OBS, so this was a good introduction into some of its functionality. I also was grateful, even though I wasn’t acting, that I have high speed Internet and mesh Wi-fi so that I can hopefully avoid such issues. I’ve also put MoCa in here and have run ethernet cables, so when I get the chance to perform in an online play, I should be good to go.

In spite of the bandwidth issues, the actors still did a good job during the recording.

This has been a wonderful experience.

I’d hoped to one day use more technology in my plays. Since I saw a play by the Wooster Group in New York a number of years ago, that has been one of my goals. Now, I think the technology is there and ready for me to realize some of these production goals.

As for North Avenue, I still want it to see an audience in person when that’s possible again. I’m biased, but I think it’s a really good play that gives a different glimpse into a city that’s been discussed, belittled, reminisced about, all across different forms of media. I hope you do too. If, by the time that you’re reading this, you’ve watched this production, thank you from the bottom of my heart. And if you’re from Baltimore, or really know Baltimore, I hope we’ve created something that’s familiar to you, aside from the accents, of course.

Thank you to the Blank Theatre for this opportunity. To Shelli for not just putting the play on its virtual feet and bringing it to life, but for the feedback and the insights I got from watching her. And to the cast for their work giving these people I’ve thought so long about, more than a life in my head, but a life out here in the world. And I thank all of them for inspiring me in other ways as I’m stalking their IMDB pages now. I hope I cross paths in this artistic journey with all of them again.

North Avenue by Christopher A. Kess

Presented by The Blank Theatre ( web | twitter | IG ), Bree Pavey, Producing Director

Director: Shelli Boone ( web | twitter | IG )
Producers: Alicia Sedwick ( web ) and Bree Pavey


DeJuan Christopher ( twitter | IG ) as Reggie Simms
Cherinda Kincherlow ( IG ) as Chunk
Da’Jon A. Porter ( IG ) as Bird
Leshay T. Boyce ( IG ) as Tate
Yolanda T. Ross ( IG | twitter) as Ellis
Cierra Danielle Jackson ( IG ) as Jewel Simms
Tierra Peters ( IG ) as Hughes
Kirk Bovill ( web | twitter | IG ) as Roman Carter