The School of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Northern Colorado has found creative ways to produce their mainstage season and also give students opportunities to create art, while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions.
The department is putting on four “virtual” productions that will be filmed both distanced and masked as well as streamed free to the general public in December. Productions include two plays including “The Heiress” and “Book of Will,” a Sondheim revue entitled “A Weekend in the Country,” and the annual Fall Dance concert. Filming has already been underway these past few weeks for multiple productions and both cast members and creative teams have been hard at work.
Rehearsing and filming the two plays has been no easy feat.
“Living in our character’s reality is already a difficult task, but it’s one that has been made harder by the presence of social distancing rules and masks,” said Cameron Marter, a senior acting major. “Sometimes I feel an impulse to get closer to my scene partner, but then I remember I have to stay six feet away from them.”
For Marter, who plays leading lady Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress”, the idea of expressing emotions while wearing a face mask had its own challenges.
“I’ll smile, or frown, or make a very specific facial expression, then I remember I’m wearing a mask,” Marter said. “If I’m too subtle with my expressions then the audience won’t be able to read them, but if I overcompensate, I run the risk of my reactions looking forced. We’ve definitely all gotten better at being expressive with our eyes.”
Luckily for this cast, “The Heiress” is set in the 1850’s and Victorian etiquette happened to work well with social distancing. Director Dr. Anne Toewe used this to her advantage.
“I am really lucky that the Victorians frowned on physical contact in general and especially as part of the courting process!” Dr. Toewe said. “Having to follow contact limitations because of COVID played right into our period work! Really, I used it as a tool rather than a hindrance.”
Maddy Sizer, a “Book of Will” actor, also found challenges in distanced rehearsals.
“It has been a challenge for students and faculty involved because this is new for all of us,” said Sizer, a junior acting major. “Being six feet apart at all times forced us to find other ways to show the relationships of the characters on stage.”
Kenneth Womble, director of “Book of Will,” echoed this sentiment.
“You’re stepping over this boundary between theatre and film, and constantly going back and forth,” said Womble, who utilized both Zoom and live rehearsals. “It’s a real challenge. Our first read through of the play was live, our table work was over Zoom and then we started rehearsing live. J David Blatt did a phenomenal job creating a set where all the places where people sit/stand are at least six feet apart and that helped tremendously.”
Womble has found the most inspiration from the theatre students at UNC.
“My inspiration comes from the students,” Womble said. “You all are very resilient. I’ve watched my actors during rehearsals still having fun and joking around. Even with masks and distanced, they’re still enjoying the process.”
For “Book of Will ‘’ actor Nik Vlachos, being part of a virtual college production was incredibly worthwhile.
“Because of the distancing restrictions, you really have to rely on your words and body language in order to get your motive across,” said Vlachos, a senior musical theatre major. “It requires a lot of patience and grace, but I think it’s worth it to be able to produce art.”
Creating the musical revue “A Weekend in the Country” came with a different set of challenges. Because a full scale musical production couldn’t be executed safely, director Jalyn Webb decided to build this production around the work of composer Stephen Sondheim.
“This process has been so different!” Webb said. “In a ‘normal’ rehearsal situation, there is so much collaboration in the room, so many people together at one time figuring things out and in this situation, everything was very one on one.”
The cast of 16 musical theatre majors were also directly involved in coming up with a storyline to bring everything together.
“I asked the senior music theater majors that are involved in this project to really lead the way on the storytelling, and they came up with an incredible concept that I think will be interesting to watch as it unfolds,” Webb said.
Senior musical theatre major Bee Dellepiane said “A Weekend in the Country” finished filming last week.
“Filming was really fun and I felt totally safe while we were doing it,” Dellepiane said. “I think we’ve been forced to get really creative with how we put on this show, and although the circumstances are obviously quite bad, challenges and limitations often present artists with opportunities to try new things they never would have otherwise.”
Stephen Sondheim’s work is known to be musically and rhymically very challenging.
“Sondheim is obviously such a wonderful and prolific songwriter, and having the opportunity to put on work by him is always a treat,” Dellepiane said. “I’m really impressed with our team of students who wrote the ‘script’ and crafted the story around these songs.”
For actor Jessie Carl, another senior musical theatre major, filming in Helen Langworthy Theatre was a unique experience.
“There was so much green!” Carl said. “Langworthy was covered from ceiling to floor in green screen. Once my eyes adjusted to the color, it felt like performing again!”
Actors and directors were not the only ones who faced challenges. Scenic design especially for these productions forced student designers to think outside of the COVID box. Eric Brockmeier, the scenic designer for “The Heiress” shared these thoughts.
“One of that largest challenges that I have had to work through is how we can best achieve interesting, unique shots and settings,” said Brockmeier, a senior Theatre Arts Design and Technology student. “Another difficulty was designing in a virtual environment, especially in a chroma green screen capacity. I have learned some of the more intricacies of building large scale models and different ways to make the design show well in a green screen capacity. The build of a large scale model provides some different challenges; the large volume compared to a standard model, the details of each piece, the way that you layer each piece of the model to communicate texture.”
Adrian Snyder, a student designer for “Book of Will,” was hard at work recreating the Shakespearean world.
“Filming these shows has both opened horizons as designers but also added a lot more work,” Snyder said. “Because of COVID-19 our department has been severely under-staffed, so trying to complete nine different set models in two months was certainly a challenge.”
Everyone participating in productions this semester, from students to faculty, found challenges along the way.
“Dancing in a mask is both physically and psychologically tricky,” said Kimberly Clay, choreographer for “A Weekend in the Country.” “This experience has tested my spirit. I think knowing that we have all been on this journey together has helped, but it has certainly been difficult as an artist to feel motivated and inspired. I am constantly reminded that we must never stop learning.”
For the time being, live theatre is suspended and virtual productions have become the new norm. Music director Angela Steiner said she believes it will carry forward even when we are able to safely reopen theatres.
“I think that every production moving forward will have some type of virtual component,” Steiner said. “I believe that people will always crave live, in person engagement, but now that we have opened this virtual door, I don’t see it ever being fully closed again.”
College students Sizer, Carl, and Marter agreed with this sentiment.
“While being a very safe way to see a show, virtual theatre is also much more accessible for family members and friends of students who live out of state to see the shows,” Sizer said. “Right now, it is one of the only ways we can create this type of art and still remain safe.”
“This opens a whole new world—imagine being able to collaborate with people all over the world at the same time in a show? We can do that now,” Carl said.
Marter brought attention to the advantages of combining live theatre and technology, showing that its reach is both far and effective.
“When I see other video participants during Zoom performances, or see comments flooding in on YouTube or Facebook livestream, I’m reminded that even at a distance, this new format of remote productions can still bring people together,” Marter said. “Plus, who doesn’t like being able to watch ‘live’ theatre in pj’s?”
Putting on these productions was no easy feat, but with every obstacle that was overcome, students and staff felt immense pride being able to create and fuel their passions during difficult times.
“Performing in this musical revue has made me a lot more hopeful about succeeding as artists even during these difficult times,” Dellepiane said. “The drive and passion of artists is what inspires me.”
Vlachos echoes this sentiment and is thankful for the new artistic opportunities he has gotten to try throughout this process.
“It has made me so grateful for what I had before and excited for what the future has in store,” Vlachos said. “It has inspired me to try new aspects of art that I would have never thought of before, and I’ve made new connections as well.”
For Carl, the balance between sustaining one’s health and creating art can be summed up in one quote.
“Our director Jalyn said something that really resonated with me: The way we look at sacrificing our own health and wellness for this craft is changing. And I think that’s going to be a huge positive,” Carl said.
For Webb, the lack of close, in person contact is felt far and wide, especially within the artistic community. It requires artists to rethink how to effectively communicate onstage.
“We are desperate for connection in these difficult times, and being able to create something that might give a little bit of hope to others has been transformative for me,” Webb said.
Even through challenging times, Steiner echoes that there is always hope for the future and that the live entertainment industry will eventually bounce back.
“What has inspired me though, and what I cling to, is that all people crave art,” Steiner said. “With my professional music direction career and the future of live theater seemingly on hold, I remind myself that live theater has always existed and has always persevered. Always.”
Marter highlights that being an artist of any kind goes hand in hand with adaptability and perseverance.
“The great thing about artists is that as the conditions become more complicated and difficult, our determination to create only increases,” Marter said.
Streaming for these productions is tentatively set for December. Specific dates and showtimes will be released at a future time.