Portal hits the stage: How a playwright is using Facebook’s video calling device

Lauren Gunderson watched closely as the actors and director ran through her script. With the debut of her new play, The Heath, only weeks away, she saw how the cast for the Lowell, Massachusetts, production brought her words to life, and she rewrote key passages and provided feedback on the performances in real time.

Then, when the rehearsal was over, she clicked a button and returned to her busy life in Northern California, 3,000 miles away from the theater. She had been collaborating remotely via Portal.

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Gunderson is an award-winning writer — she was named the “most prolific playwright in America in 2017-18” by American Theater magazine and has had her work staged around the globe. She’s also a busy mom who for years has been looking for a way to collaborate seamlessly on new productions without having to travel extensively.

“I’ve got toddlers,” she says. “So, the ability to do this important work in a different city and then come home to them — that’s critically important to me.”

Not the same old video-calling experience

Artists have always found ways to work together remotely — from musicians sending demos back and forth through the mail to writers working in real time in shared online docs. And VR today already lets people immerse themselves in shared virtual worlds. Still, it can be tricky to re-create the spark of having people in the same room.

“There’s nothing like being in the room with the performing artists,” Gunderson says. “And that’s why I need something that would act as a technological solution when I can’t be there.”

Gunderson tried laptops, tablets, and videoconferencing services, but nothing worked well for her. Problems included complicated software, underpowered webcams, poor sound, and the inability to zoom in on people or follow them in the shot.

“Literally, I’ve been trying everything,” Gunderson says. “The worst version was speakerphone on someone’s cell phone on the table.”

She even experimented with having interns walk around with a smartphone camera during rehearsals to try to film a scene. The process was distracting for the cast and crew and the results were disappointing. Recently, Gunderson came across Portal, which uses AI to help people connect with one another and feel like they’re actually in the same physical space.

Having tried everything she could get her hands on, she found Portal’s simplicity appealing. You can use the device to call friends without having to open apps or download updated drivers. The camera supports an ultrawide field of view, and the AI-powered Smart Camera follows the action and keeps the subjects in frame as they move — particularly important for Gunderson. And Portal’s microphones are optimized for conversations in which the person speaking isn’t necessarily right in front of the device.

A new, high-tech routine

Gunderson uses Portal+, which has a large, 15.6-inch screen that can rotate into landscape mode. She can call into a Portal that's set up at the rehearsal space in Massachusetts, watching the actors and giving feedback for two to three hours as they run through her script.

“I need to be able to see and hear an actor with such clarity to say, ‘Well, you know, she raises her eyebrow when she does that one punch line, and it takes all the humor out of it,’” she says.

The show features live banjo music, and Gunderson would watch the performers over video call and give feedback to the musicians. Afterward, she would talk to the director about the day’s progress while making edits to the script in a shared online doc.

Lauren Gunderson and her children watch a rehearsal via a Portal video call. (Images courtesy of Lauren Gunderson.)

While they may have been wary initially, the actors and director quickly settled into a comfortable routine once they realized that “Portaling in” was an effective way to collaborate remotely.

“I did caveat it with, ‘If it doesn’t work, just send it back to me,’” she explains, but they ended up keeping the hardware.

New fields for remote collaboration

Gunderson says this kind of close collaboration was especially important with The Heath, which explores complex family relationships and is partially based on Gunderson's own life.

“It’s a really personal show,” she says. “Being able to really be present was tremendously important – for this one in particular.”

The Heath finished its run at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 10.