As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced everyone apart over the last year-and-a-half, folks have had to get more creative when it comes to how they occupy their time. This pandemic is a lonely one, so in turn, many have turned to apps like Zoom or Discord to help fill that social void. Like so many others looking for a semblance of human connection in these trying times, Sheila Houlahan decided one day to reach out to her long-time friend, Ellen McLain — best known for voicing GLaDOS in Portal and its sequel — just to see if she wanted to do something. This kickstarted a journey that's set to end with Houlahan producing and starring in a Twitch-exclusive hybrid film — a modernized take on Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Night, Mother.
Houlahan and McLain sat down with Game Rant to discuss how this unique project came to be, the challenges faced by each performer, and the viability of Twitch as a storytelling platform. Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Q: It goes without saying that this is a pretty unique production. What about this project made you want to be a part of it?
Sheila Houlahan: Ellen and I can both agree that this project has evolved into a different life form all on its own. But if we dial back to the beginning, it's summer 2020 and we are two actresses looking for something to do while stuck at home. I adore Ellen. I've known Ellen for close to 10 years, and I reached out to her and was like, “You know, I just want to play some character [alongside] you.”
So we got on Zoom, started kicking the ball around, and then Ellen mentioned 'Night, Mother and everything kind of fell into place. I am a survivor of my own battles with mental health and 'Night, Mother was the play that got me through those times when I was at my worst. So as soon as she said it, immediately I was like, “Okay, we absolutely have to work with this.” And having Ellen – somebody that I admire and see as a mentor and a friend – alongside me, it made sense to do a piece that was about intimacy between two people.
The roles were so organic for us, and the story was so relevant to topical issues nowadays. Ellen and I adapted the play what feels like a dozen times, if you want to take over for that, Ellen.
Ellen McLain: When Sheila and I were reading the play for months, for pandemic purposes, it seemed that we needed to change the play because of where it takes place. Traditionally, the two women are in the same location. Well, we couldn't be in the same location; we had to be socially distanced.
While working on Zoom, the first thing we did was rewrite just a few lines in the play. We did mention the pandemic, and we did mention that we were in separate locations. But as our work continued, we eventually got to the point where we started to see the kernels of ideas that Marsha Norman was putting forth. While holding those core concepts close, we were able to cut the play's length down to about 50 minutes to an hour to make the length more manageable for Twitch viewers, while still ensuring faithfulness to the original text.
I'm actually very proud of our work on the play. This is all [Marsha Norman’s] story, but it is slightly updated because, you know, 'Night, Mother premiered in 1982, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, and now it's 2021. So, some things have changed, and I think that we have been able to incorporate those changes.
Q: You mentioned you’ve known each other for a while. How did you two meet?
EM: I worked for the Seattle Opera Guild producing lecture demonstrations for opera productions. Sheila came to an audition and really knocked us for a loop. She was so wonderful and talented, and we just immediately took to each other.
I think the main reason we took to each other so well is that we're both artists who have not just done one thing. We don't just do opera, we don't just do theater; we also do music, and voice work, too. We're really very interested in many aspects of the arts and performance, and so, I saw a kindred soul in Sheila.
SH: That's how I felt about Ellen as well, and that's why I have kept her close in my circle all these years. With what we're doing here, I can't imagine Ellen not being a part of it because [she] has been a pioneer in so many different ways. Like, here's a woman who has built an internationally renowned reputation all because she said, “Yeah, I'm going to do that.”
Having known someone like that is a gift. And in turn, now that we're trying to do a hybrid film to be live-streamed on Twitch, I can't imagine not working with Ellen because she is so like, “Sure, let's try it, let's see what happens.”
Also, I have to share my story of when I first met Ellen because it’s one of my favorite stories. After my audition, Ellen came to a show of mine where she introduced herself and told me that we’re going to be working together. And then she asked, “Do you know who I am?” And I was like, “Well, you're Ellen McLain! I just met you at the audition.” After I said that, she leaned in and whispered one of GLaDOS’ lines about cake, and having only watched a friend play Portal before, I was caught very off-guard and started thinking “Does this woman need some cake?” Soon after, she started apologizing and explained that she voiced GLaDOS. To this day, it’s one of my favorite moments. It really showcases Ellen’s great sense of humor.
Q: That’s a pretty heartwarming and hilarious story! It seems like Ellen's “just try it” mentality is a must-have for the ambitious project you two are taking on. Speaking to this adaptation’s unique qualities, what inspired this production to be comprised of both pre-recorded footage and live performances instead of just one or the other?
SH: Part of it involved audience preference for Twitch content. When I met with staff from Twitch, a big takeaway was that if the show isn't live, [viewers] will be angry. And if it is live, we need to show that it's live. Just sitting down and interacting with each other on a Zoom call wouldn't necessarily “be enough” to show that it is unless we were to literally break character to address the audience, and Ellen and I did not want to do that at all; we wanted to honor Marsha Norman's story.
So, we started to get creative and had numerous production meetings to explore how we could still be true to the piece, while also finding ways to enhance it through audience interaction. I'm not going to say too much more about it, because you're going to have to watch if you want to see how we do it, but we ultimately found a way to incorporate true live spontaneity without it interfering with the story. It’s certainly been a fun challenge to work with.
Q: What other challenges have arisen while setting up this remote performance?
SH: One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is that 'Night, Mother is a really dark play, and I can say now that I could not do this without Ellen. Getting into these types of roles takes actors to some dark, scary places, and having creatives with me who I know are there to keep me safe while getting into that darkness and are also there to help bring me out of it unharmed is why I am able to do this.
Q: It’s obvious that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic plays a large role in this project both in its setting and its production. How has the pandemic affected each of you, individually?
EM: I teach singing lessons, and before the pandemic, I always taught them in person. Well, that’s not possible nowadays. One day, the father of one of my students asked if I could teach their child on Zoom. And I said, “I'll try.” So I got it set up, and I've been teaching voice lessons on Zoom since last April.
I've actually found it very effective thanks to what it has done for my students. It has made them more independent, particularly on the keyboard because many of them have had to learn to play the melodies of the song they are singing.
SH: My own life has been a mix. I was living in Los Angeles before [the pandemic] and I remember packing my bag for a two-week trip to stay with my folks. Those two weeks eventually turned into half a year, and I later left my home in Los Angeles. It’s been about a year since I moved out.
There are certainly some good things that have come from this. I'm happily engaged, which I'm really excited about, and I also managed to earn a graduate school degree in one year thanks to online classes. But despite these blessings, I still never got to say goodbye to my grandmother who passed away during the pandemic, and I've lost so many family members this year. However, I am so grateful I was able to shelter with my family through it all.
In some ways, I am still grappling with the fact that the pandemic has changed not only my life, but also so many others’ in a way that feels permanent. There’s this long-term, worldwide change to our lives that simply wasn’t our choice, and living with that knowledge and living through lockdowns and quarantines over extended periods of time does impact your psyche in some pretty big ways that have been very negative for a lot of people.
Q: While we’re talking about the effects of the pandemic, taking care of one’s mental health is important now more than ever thanks to the impact of Covid-19. With this in mind, and considering 'Night, Mother’s dark subject matter regarding mental health, will there be mental health resources provided for viewers who might need them while watching the stream?
SH: We are working with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and we're in talks with the Trevor Project, which specializes in LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention. Our publicist is also reaching out to a couple of different mindfulness-based apps to see if we can get a discount for our audience, and we’re also trying to put together a post-show panel that features recognizable Twitch influencers who have had mental health struggles in the past.
We're also going to have moderators chatting with the audience so that if someone says that a line was really triggering for them, we can immediately connect them with mental health resources they can access in real-time. Or if folks start having a dialogue, we can have people on the ground in the live chat dialoguing with them.
Q: Ellen – you’re very well known for your voiceover work in the video game industry, particularly for your role as GLaDOS in Portal. How does the work you’re doing in this project compare to your prior roles in the video game industry?
EM: This is a very difficult role to play, and not because there are a lot of lines or anything like that. It's very difficult because of the emotional life one must experience. My ideas about acting include that you bring yourself to the character and ultimately the character becomes you. I will be having Thelma's feelings and they are very difficult feelings to have.
For GLaDOS, there was an emotional investment, but she's not human. She's programmed. Speaking for GLaDOS, I do think that GLaDOS does feel lonely, but I don't think she understands human reactions like the embarrassment, shame, or depression that the characters in 'Night, Mother have to experience.
Q: Do either of you watch any live streamers on Twitch or have you in the past? If so, which ones?
SH: I do have a lot of lovely lady friends who stream video games and so I'm going to default to them every time. Otherwise, it depends on what I’m fancying or if somebody sends me a particularly funny stream, I know JackSepticEye is a hilarious channel.
EM: My connection to Twitch is Kim Swift, who was the producer of Portal at Valve. When Twitch was starting out, Kim went over and worked for Twitch. I also have a former voice student who does stream, and I know she gets revenue from playing games on Twitch.
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Q: Would any of you ever consider streaming on Twitch? And if so, what kind of content would you like to stream?
EM: At a game convention years ago, somebody made a W.W.G.D. (What Would GLaDOS Do) button for me, so I've always imagined doing a “What Would GLaDOS Do?” advice show where GLaDOS gives advice. I don't know how helpful it would be!
SH: Ellen, I would produce that in a heartbeat! That's fantastic content right there. Everyone get ready for Ellen's new channel! I can’t really follow that.
Q: I could see a show like that catching on very quickly! If you two were to put together another live performance on Twitch, what existing live shows or musicals would you like to adapt?
SH: I've thought about this because we've gotten to be so bizarrely skilled in this very niche thing that we're doing, that I've been thinking, “What would we do next?” And one thing that Ellen and I have both agreed on is something less sad.
There are a couple of shows that already exist like The Mystery of Edwin Drood where the audience gets to vote on the ending, and I think that level of audience interaction would lend itself well to Twitch. I am hoping that this production of 'Night, Mother can be the start of a larger conversation with theater companies that convinces some of them to bring shows to peoples’ homes rather than telling people to leave their homes to come to the theatre.
Q: Why do you think Twitch is a great choice for live, scripted performances?
SH: I think what is so cool about Twitch is its interactivity, right? Like people now want to be a part of entertainment, so as we enter this new normal, I think productions finding different ways to organically incorporate the audience is only going to make people more excited about it. Look at what Bernie Su has done with Artificial season 3; viewers could help compose the soundtrack or play an active role in how a character develops. That level of interaction creates a more interesting conversation between audiences and creators.
Any time there’s a new show or movie that goes viral, there's always a subreddit where everyone is talking theories or discussing what might happen next, and I think it's such a shame that most of these stories have already been completed. Like, people are presenting their thoughts in real-time, but fans can't actually have a dialogue with creators because the show has already been shot and edited.
I'm not saying we should necessarily always pander to [audience desires], but I am saying that having that conversation between filmmakers and fans be open, and having the audience feel like they have a hand in production is more fun for everybody. It’s an innovative use of this emerging platform.
EM: You know, when I was in college, I had conservatory training, and when you go to the conservatory, it's “music, music, music” and that's all you do. And to now live in this day and age where I'm known for voicing characters in computer games – something that did not even exist when I was in school – as well as starring in a live performance on Twitch, life continues to amaze me.
That’s why my motto is “say yes to life.” I couldn't have predicted any of this, but it's so wonderful how it’s unfolding.
'Night, Mother will be streaming on Twitch in September 2021.
'Night, Mother images courtesy of Eli Reed.