The acting profession has been hit hard by the pandemic, but Aliza Pearl ’04 and Kelechi Ezie ’08 have found a way to adapt.
The two are cast in a new kind of hospital drama called Heartbeats that streams on Twitch, a platform originally designed for video game fans to watch other gamers play live. But now, Twitch is perfectly suited for the film industry at a time when on-set production is either extremely challenging or not possible, says Ripley Improv, which is putting on the experimental show.
All Pearl and Ezie need to entertain audiences is internet access and a green screen.
“The things you can do with a Zoom background are pretty cool and hilarious,” says Ezie.
Heartbeats is a live narrative improv show of the kind Ripley Improv and Pearl have been putting on in person for years. The troupe has been involved in hourlong shows that mimicked the dystopian style of The Hunger Games. That was followed by a foray into the world of arm wrestling, in the style of TV series GLOW, and then a string of shows about scientists encountering the unknown. (“Sometimes they encountered aliens and sometimes they were the alien,” says Pearl.)
They had toyed with the idea of an online hospital drama, then went for it after the pandemic hit. Pearl encouraged Ezie — who was recovering from COVID-19 at the time — to audition via video call. The whimsical drama was just what the doctor ordered.
“It’s been a really hard couple of months, almost a year. Doing this project has been great,” Ezie says. “The arts are always there for you to renew you and fulfill you. But as actors trying to make a living, you don’t always get a chance to pursue the thing that might bring you more happiness.”
Ezie describes the character she created for the show as both prestige hungry and absurd — a half-Nigerian resident physician who doesn’t know how to respect work-life boundaries and is also Reese Witherspoon’s cousin.
Pearl has similarly enjoyed assigning quirks to her new character, a cardiac surgeon with a goth aesthetic.
“I’m not goth, but I am sort of a boho, sci-fi Black girl,” Pearl says. “I always want to see more representation of Black women in general — all kinds of Black women, all of us. But one thing I rarely see is goth Black women in media.”
The new format allows the actors to incorporate audience feedback in real time. During each episode of Heartbeats, viewers can vote on which characters should be in the next scene and even what they think a particular character should do. The audience usually picks the most shocking scenarios, says Pearl.
Ezie is convinced the format has a future beyond the pandemic.
“This is a new form of entertainment that should stay around,” she says.
Pearl can also be seen in the new film Faith Based, and Ezie is in the HBO series The Deuce. Heartbeats streams at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern on Fridays through mid-November.