Spencer Wilkins ’21 has known that he wanted to write a play since the fall of his junior year. Four semesters later, he is preparing for the premiere of his senior studio project, “WALDO,” an original, 87-minute Zoom play that will be pre-recorded and streamed to the Bowdoin community on April 8.
“I had a lot of difficulty sticking to one sustained narrative,” Wilkins wrote in an email to the Orient. “The idea for ‘WALDO’ was really a result of intaking so much world news while being completely isolated.”
While living alone in rural Vermont last semester, Wilkins began drafting what would soon be the script for “WALDO.” Inspired by the work of creatives such as David Foster Wallace, Charlie Kaufman and Stephen King, Wilkins set “WALDO” 15 years in the future, where elements of Trump-era sociopolitics and disease control still hold relevance.
“I took a pickaxe to a few tap roots—mainly identity, community and safety,” Wilkins said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “On a construction level, it’s a work of hyper-compression, [both] spatially and within each character. I crammed every shade of disease prevention into one coastal town in New Jersey, and there are a lot of ideas being put into just a few people.”
From the play’s inception, Wilkins knew that he wanted Lou Sydel ’22 to be involved in directing the final performance.
“[Sydel is] the best director on campus by far—I’ve been watching theater productions since my first year here, and I’ve just been blown away by how good they are,” Wilkins said. “I’m not really a theater person; I’m a writing person, so I wanted someone in charge who could direct and get the most out of these actors.”
Once Wilkins had finalized his script, he and Sydel began working collaboratively during winter break to cast the play and discuss rehearsal plans for the upcoming semester.
“I’ve been really grateful for how much [Wilkins] has trusted me with his words,” Sydel said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I’ve been able to ask him lots of questions about what his intentions were, which has been really cool for me.”
From the commencement of rehearsals, Wilkins, Sydel and Assistant Director Alice Hawkins ’22 continuously adapted the play’s format in order to comply with COVID-19 precautions. While they originally planned to stage “WALDO” in person, the production format went through many iterations before the team decided to pre-record and stream the play over Zoom.
“We got very excited about it and we came up with some ideas that would have been really amazing, but it just wasn’t the right time,” Hawkins said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Obviously, everyone stepped up, and where we are now is amazing, but I think it’s always hard to get excited about something and then have it change.”
Despite the uncertainty about the final format of “WALDO,” Wilkins’ cast remained enthusiastic and optimistic throughout the production process.
“I just trusted [Wilkins’] vision with it,” Chanel Matthews ’21, an actor in the play, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I was just happy to support him in whatever way would be best.”
Because “WALDO” could not have the range of movement of a stage play, Sydel had the opportunity to spend more time discussing the significance of Wilkins’ writing with the cast.
“It’s mostly just doing lots of text analysis with the actors and really honing character and what the play is about and sharing my vision with everyone, and less about big blocking because it’s on Zoom,” Sydel said. “It’s been fun for me to really work with the actors so they understand their characters best, because at the end of the day, that’s something that we can do regardless.”
While actors such as Lyle Altschul ’23 miss rehearsing in person, they believe that the scheduling and format of Zoom rehearsals have allowed for much-needed flexibility during a turbulent spring semester.
“It’s been a weirdly good process—it’s gone very smoothly,” Altschul said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “The fact that it’s on Zoom and recorded definitely makes it a lot more low-stakes than a normal play would be.”
Cast members have also appreciated the opportunity to work not only with a contemporary playwright, but also on a play that features contemporary subject matter.
“It’s not like we’re doing like Hamlet, or something with a million interpretations,” actor Ellie Pike ’22 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It has been really cool to be the first people to attack the script.”
“It’s a really interesting piece of theater,” added Matthews. “Every time I watch a different scene from it, I feel like I get something different in terms of how I understand the piece. I’ll connect it back to something that is more than relevant right now, with the political climate, social climate and everything in between.”
After the cast finishes recording “WALDO,” it will enter post-production. Sydel and Hawkins look forward to the opportunity to experiment with camera angles, movement and green screens, and to add more dimension to the visual aspect of the performance.
“I learned a lot about video editing during this summer and this winter break as well—it’s been really fun to learn how to take a piece of footage and chop it up and tell a narrative in that way,” Sydel said. “I think this whole process has been me taking it one step at a time.”
With the premiere less than a week away, Sydel and Hawkins continue to hold company run-throughs, with the focus of preserving Wilkins’ message and accurately portraying his characters and story.
“I love [Wilkins’] writing. I cannot wait to see it come to life,” Hawkins said. “I want people to hear how clever and sensitive and impactful what he has put together is.”
As Wilkins prepares to release this culminating project, he is not only excited to share his work with the Bowdoin community, but for the chance to share his success with his collaborators.
“Before, I did a lot of writing stuff and I did a lot of music stuff, but it was all very singular,” Wilkins said. “It’s very exciting to be a part of a group effort that came from something that I made. I have not had that experience before.”
“WALDO” will stream on Thursday, April 8th, at 7 p.m.