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Living history goes online with one-woman show

Judith Kalaora playing the part of Deborah Sampson.
Judith Kalaora playing the part of Deborah Sampson.Vincent Morreale Photography

Judith Kalaora first heard about livestreaming years ago, but at the time she brushed off the suggestion that she consider offering her one-woman historical interpretations through that medium.

“We were doing so well with live performances,” she said wistfully.

And this was shaping up to be a busy spring for Kalaora and her History at Play repertoire. Playing the part of suffragist Lucy Stone, she was in the midst of a series of performances throughout the Boston area in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage when the current public health crisis shut down her act.

“Within 48 hours of the realization that all of our upcoming performances would be canceled, I knew I needed to make a change in what I was offering,” said Kalaora, who grew up in Framingham and now lives in West Roxbury. In a matter of days, Kalaora and her team at History at Play put together a plan.

They now offer livestreamed renditions of Kalaora’s shows, which she refers to as immersive living history performance experiences, in two different ways. One is a free segment called HAP n’ CHAT, which airs via Facebook Live on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 p.m. It’s an approximately 15-minute excerpt of one of Kalaora’s shows with a different historical figure each week. She speaks first as the historical figure and then as herself, answering questions that her audience submits via text.

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The second option is “Pay-Per-HAP,” an hourlong pay-per-view performance. The cost is a sliding scale from $5 to $25; Kalaora urges viewers to pay based on what they can afford and how many viewers will be in their group.

After just a couple of livestreams, Kalaora has already noted that this approach brings in a different audience. Typically when performing live, she travels to senior centers, but her on-screen show is bringing in people of all ages, including children and entire families. She estimates that 600 viewers tuned in for the first episode.

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And it’s not only the age of her viewer that’s different now; the questions from the audience are as well. Kalaora said the questions her viewers ask about the characters she is portraying — who in addition to Lucy Stone include Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a boy to go to battle; astronaut Christa McAuliffe; Paul Revere’s wife, Rachel; and actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr — are more complex, perhaps because the written format gives people more opportunity to frame their thoughts.

Kalaora, who trained at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and later worked as a costumed interpreter on Boston’s Freedom Trail, looks forward to returning to live performances when circumstances allow. But she said she plans to continue livestreaming her show for as long as possible, and using some of her downtime to develop new productions, including one about Princess Diana and one about female athletes.

“I started my show because when I worked on the Freedom Trail and educated people about Deborah Sampson, they always wanted to know more,” she said. Developing her hourlong performances allowed her to fit in all the content that she didn’t have time to explain on the Freedom Trail.

And even though it arose by necessity and not choice, with livestream she can reach a whole new range of viewers, eager to learn about some of history’s most fascinating women.

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To learn more, go to www.HistoryatPlay.com.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.