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Going 'Stir Crazy': Norwich-based Second Step Players present their pandemic-centric sketch comedy show

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Here are quarantining subjects many people can identify with right now — all gathered in a sketch show proving that, yes, there is humor to be found in aspects of the pandemic.

Consider the titles of a few vignettes: “Agoraphobic Paradise,” “The Zoom Waiting Room,” and “Virtual Pet Therapy.”

They are all part of Second Step Players’ “Stir Crazy: Comedy from the Pandemic,” whose performances will go virtual on Jan. 22 and 23.

Second Step Players is the theater arm of the Norwich-based Artreach; Artreach is a mental health and arts agency that provides arts programs to people living with mental illness.

The “Stir Crazy” pandemic-centric sketches were culled from ideas and feedback from members of Second Step Players, but, notes Artreach Associate Director Emma Palzere-Rae, “It’s stuff we’ve all been dealing with … I think people will relate to (what’s) in there.”

In one sketch, for instance, two friends who know each other from group therapy decide to get together via Zoom weekly to support one another during the pandemic, using techniques they’ve learned for self-care.

Shifting plans

Artreach’s performance plans for 2020 had been to host a Music Heals coffeehouse in May or June and a Second Step Players show in December.

But, of course, the coronavirus shut down public events, and Artreach had to figure out how to adjust. First up was determining how to get laptops to Artreach program members, the majority of whom are low-income and didn’t have access to either a device or high-speed internet. “So back in March, that was really the first thing we needed to address in order to keep the community together and keep programs going,” Palzere-Rae says.

Coincidentally, just before the March shutdown, Palzere-Rae had reached out to Pfizer about its community grants and had asked whether those could be used to provide technology to Artreach program members. Pfizer officials said no — but said the company could provide laptops. So Palzere-Rae submitted a request for 20 laptops at the beginning of March and received them by early April.

Artreach set program members up with laptops and everything they would need to participate, along with coaching on how to use it all.

Having a computer “has, for some people, opened up the world. People who were not often able to have access to in-person programs have been quite active in the virtual programs,” Palzere-Rae says.

By the beginning of summer, Second Step Players were trying to figure out how to do a show during the pandemic and started brainstorming sketch ideas.

Second Step Players perform original, “stigma-busting” comedy about mental health issues.

In terms of getting everyone’s input on the mental health aspects to include in the sketches, a lot came from weekly social gatherings with members, where people would talk about how they were doing and what frustrating, challenging — or funny.

“It was evolving out of everything we were all experiencing,” Palzere-Rae says.

The writing was mostly done by Palzere-Rae and Artreach event coordinator Carin Jennie Estey.

“We took the ideas and feedback that people gave us and worked on the sketches more at a staff level, which is not how we would like it to be … (Program members) had the ideas and the feedback, and we could bounce things off of them, but getting together to write virtually was a little more challenging in that situation,” Palzere-Rae says.

“The process was a little different than it would have been in that each of us kind of took on sketches to write, and then we’d come back together and share them (with program members) and get feedback — collaborative, but not as collaborative as if we were in the same room together.”

By September, it was time for auditions, which were done via Zoom. The cast of 11 began rehearsing.

Palzere-Rae and Estey spent time considering all the new elements and challenges when making theater virtual — including the fact that performers to be their own set designers, technicians, lighting designers, and so on. How to perform is different, too; instead of moving around onstage, a performance on Zoom is smaller, and a little tilt of the head might be all that’s needed to convey something significant.

Palzere-Rae says that cast members have said that, heading from the fall into the holidays and winter, having this show to focus on “was a life-saver — to keep them busy, to keep a focus on something positive. To have something light to work on provided so much to people, from keeping them out of depression and anxiety to just building new skills and working with each other, even though it was virtually. Rehearsals always seem to end with cast members thanking each other and congratulating each other on their work.”

A real game changer

One of those cast members is Lara Schmieder, who plays two roles in “Stir Crazy” — a robotic voice in “Please Hold,” in which a man tries to access his benefits through the Department of Social Services’ automated line, and Workaholic in Wyoming in “Miss Cranky Pans,” about a YouTube figure who is like a Dear Abby.

Being involved in a Second Step Players production via Zoom is, of course, quite different from the usual in-person process. Schmieder says people had to get used to the technology so as not to talk over others or interrupt. She says there was a learning curve but it was a lot of fun, and everyone was good-natured about it.

Schmieder says that being involved with the show “took me out of the monotony of the lockdown routine I had established. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Being isolated during the pandemic hasn’t been easy, says Schmieder, who moved to Norwich from New York City several years ago.

“On one hand, I think I’m better when I’m actually engaged with people and in contact with people. On the flip side of that, I’m very much an introvert, and I suffer from depression and anxiety, which was how I ended up finding Artreach three years ago,” Schmieder says. “So it’s like an introvert’s paradise, but then it’s too much of a good thing gives you that cabin fever. … The longer I wasn’t involved with something creative or social, it really started to contribute to kind of a spiral. It didn’t help my depression; it was kind of encouraging it, if you will. So the isolation was a slippery slope.”

Being part of Artreach has been a real game changer for Schmieder, who also says it has helped Norwich feel more like home. She has joined the board and is chair of the program committee.

Schmieder says, “Artreach’s support has provided me with a sense of welcome and safety from the beginning, given my depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders. With their encouragement, ‘finding my creativity’ has been unexpectedly therapeutic and helps me out of my own isolation — so timely during this pandemic especially.

“Serving on Artreach’s board as well, there’s a sense of purpose and perspective that there’s help, hope — plus a come-as-you-are, judgment-free place reminding folks we’re not alone in this.” 


If you watch

What: "Stir Crazy: Comedy from the Pandemic"

Details: Original sketch comedy by the Second Step Players in their first virtual show

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 22 and 23

Cost: Free, donations accepted

Where: @ArtreachHeals on YouTube and Facebook Live

Talkbacks: 5 p.m. Jan. 24


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