‘Lonely Planet’ Hope plays well amid a world of hurt

Producer, James Ruby Barsalou, Will Commerford and Michael Naffziger. [Photo: Kaila Jones]

It’s the perfect play at the perfect time. Now, if they can only find the money to mount the production.

“We came across this play about a virus, an epidemic, the effects it has on these two characters,” says Michael Naffziger, a professional lighting/scenic designer and director/drama teacher at Indian River Charter High School. “I said it really needs to be performed.”

Indeed. If one of high art’s missions is to bring people together to find what they have in common, then this play, “Lonely Planet,” could benefit the artists creating it as well as the potential audiences, who might find solace therein.

Written in 1993 by the prolific and award-winning playwright Steven Dietz, “Lonely Planet” is set in a map store in an American city. Jody, a 50-something recluse afraid to venture out because of the AIDS epidemic, runs the store. Carl, an upbeat young man, befriends Jody and urges him to continue to embrace life in the midst of grief and his fear of the dread disease.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Dietz said, “I wanted to write about male friendship and how we lean on it in difficult times.”

In the midst of this current pandemic’s quarantine, Naffziger opted to rely on friendship. Isolated from his usual theater activities, he at least wanted to get in some scene study with another actor, a common practice to keep skills sharply honed.

He turned to former student Will Commerford, who had returned to Vero Beach after spending two years in New York City studying acting and going on auditions.

After simply studying the play’s scenes, it became crystal clear to them that it begged to be performed. Now.

“It’s essentially about love, support and the power that friendship can bring in trying times,” says Commerford. “As we went over it, more and more it became this thing like hope.”

While the pair felt strongly about bringing the play to the public, the first question was “where?” Riverside Theatre and Vero Beach Theatre Guild have been closed for months, and they needed a venue where costs could be kept at a minimum and audiences could maintain social distancing.

They turned to James Ruby Barsalou, owner of Felt Studios in Vero Beach and a director and cinematographer for music videos and short films, who Naffziger had worked with in the Los Angeles area. Their wives became friends and the families never lost touch.

For the past five years, Barsalou has been bringing in art exhibitions and installations, music and multi-visionary events into Project Space, part of a larger

venue called Raw Space in the Downtown Vero Beach Arts District.

Owner and arts patron Neli Santamarina designed the venue to operate as an arts incubator for exhibitions, performance art and unusual arts experiences. Santamarina, who also has a home in Miami, digs into her own pocket to pay the overhead for both Raw Space and Project Space.

“My choices are two,” she explains. “Having an empty, dark space or have it injected with energy. For me, having the space alive with the lights and art and music and whatever, is better than having it silent and dark.”

Everyone involved in the project agreed that Project Space would be ideal for “Lonely Planet,” which will be the first play produced there.

“I come from a vein of just going for it and figuring it out,” says Barsalou. “This came up and seemed to have some incredible parallels in how people are dealing with what’s happening. It seemed like an interesting opportunity to safely do this and inspire people to stay creative and still have hope.”

Barsalou sees “Lonely Planet” as being as immersive a theater experience as one can get during a quarantine culture. The scenery will be realistic, made to look and feel like a real map store, with dusty shafts of light and that old book smell. Audience members will actually walk through the map store to get to their seats.

“James brings original vision and the ability to see more than a big empty room,” says Naffziger. “I think the area would benefit from more arts like this. We have amazing theater – Riverside, Vero Beach Theatre Guild – and the museum. But the other dynamic, grass roots, underground arts initiative that feeds those things, I think that’s been missing here for quite a while.”

The actors have become “covid friends,” meaning they quarantined individually at their homes and then pledged to practice sound pandemic hygiene.

That, in turn, means they can skip the masks and social distancing during rehearsals and performances. The construction crew wears masks.

“We make sure everyone is comfortable being there,” says Barsalou. “We’re following all protocols, so full caution is taken. The last thing we’d want is someone getting sick in the process of giving hope.”

Audiences will be expected to wear masks and seats will be arranged with social distancing in mind. They previously postponed the original planned opening when Florida’s COVID-19 numbers went up, and won’t open until they feel it’s safe enough to do so.

Naffziger, owner of the lighting company East Coast Encore, will provide a few small LED lights to keep the show simple, and they plan to rent black fabric to cover windows and seating platforms for the audience.

“You don’t need a lot to pull off a good look,” Naffziger says.

The show has a shoestring budget of $3,500 to cover royalties, scenery and lighting expenses, which Barsalou describes as extremely tight.

“It’s a grassroots artists’ collective making it happen,” he explains.

Typically, small independent theater companies performing in intimate spaces count on ticket sales to break even. However, to comply with CDC guidelines, they need to cut occupancy by 60 percent.

To compensate for the difference, they hope to find show sponsors or at least someone to underwrite any losses.

They have received permission to stream a local video of the show online, a new national phenomenon of sorts for regional and community theaters. Pre-pandemic, only big productions with massive budgets for professional actors, cinematographers, cameras, costumes and so much more could be streamed online, and even then, publishers weren’t always ready to give the green light.

Those worries have been put aside during the pandemic so that theaters, publishers and playwrights can get their work out to the public. Although frequently in scrappy form, it’s a vested interest for all parties.

Nevertheless, the video-streaming income from the Project Space production of “Lonely Planet” will be limited, as it will only be available to local audience members who purchase their tickets at the regular price.

Still though, despite the pandemic, the cost and the uncertainty of even finding the funding to get the play up on its feet, the trio moves along, undaunted.

“This is a therapy for me,” says Naffziger. “Some people are baking bread, exercising more. This is my way of getting beyond the pandemic, keeping my humanity, keeping sane and positive. And keeping hope is what now is the driving force behind it.”

For more information, visit the Project Space website, PS1785.com or call 772-643-8520.

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