The Show Must Go On
Take a stroll through UofSC’s theatres and dance studios, and we’ll forgive you for thinking that things look a little…well…normal. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, faculty, staff and students in the Department of Theatre and Dance are hard at work designing, building, directing, choreographing and, yes, performing. Still, while the pandemic hasn’t changed what we do, it’s most definitely affected how we do it.
As was the case with performing arts organizations around the world, the latter portion of the department’s 2019-2020 season was canceled amid the widespread shutdown in March, and energy was instead focused on successfully transitioning our highly interpersonal classes to the socially-distant virtual space. However, despite the abrupt shifts, planning for the 2020-2021 season continued.
“The faculty all agreed that we had to do some kind of season,” says professor Stephanie Milling, the department’s Interim Chair, adding that the challenge is perfectly suited to our artistic fields. “We collaborate with others. We figure out how to make things work.”
That collaboration has resulted in a season consisting of virtual performances during the fall semester and, tentatively, in-person performances this spring. The first of the online theatre productions, Caryl Churchill’s experimental play Love and Information, will be performed live via Zoom October 1-4. That will be followed by online productions of the comedy-adventure She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms (November 6-15), the UofSC Dance Fall Concert (November 10-13) and the Student Choreography Showcase (December 1-4).
Once the decision to move the shows to the virtual space was made, the next step was to figure out how. “As my colleague Peter Duffy has described it, it’s a bit like building a plane in the air,” Milling jokes. “But, it’s not a bad idea in art to get outside of your comfort zone. That’s how art is learned and that’s how new art is generated.”
“...it’s not a bad idea in art to get outside of your comfort zone. That’s how art is learned and that’s how new art is generated.”
Stephanie Milling, Interim Department Chair
For professor Steve Pearson, director of Love and Information, the immediate challenge was to not lose the sense of connection that theatre brings, in spite of his cast and crew rehearsing and performing from separate locations as distant as Michigan and Hong Kong.
“Because we’re not able to be in the same space, what’s missing is the visceral humanity of it, and what we’re left with is the spirit of that humanity,” says Pearson. “That’s why we’re doing it live so that we retain some of the human presence, even though we don’t have actual living, breathing presence.”
Pearson’s production will still retain some of the hallmarks of traditional theatre, with specially designed digital backdrops, costumes and props. Actors will effectively be serving as their own backstage crew, however, responsible for setting up department-provided green screens, configuring lighting and facilitating quick costume changes. “We’re already in the tech rehearsal period,” Pearson says. “We show up in tech.”
Ezri Fender, a junior theatre major and Love and Information actor, says there is a positive aspect to the difficulties of performing virtually. “There is this shared struggle or connection with the world we live in right now that makes us all want to work harder and help each other out,” she says. “As much as I prefer working in-person, it’s nice to have the feeling of not being alone in this weird and changing world.”
The creative team behind She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms, which began rehearsals September 21, is similarly focused on maximizing the potential for collaboration, but taking a more technology-focused approach for their production. Director Lindsay Rae Taylor, an adjunct instructor who recently earned her MFA in Directing from South Carolina, explains that the play will be rehearsed virtually for a few days, then quickly move into a filming phase. Actors will be recorded individually in front of green screens, then edited into virtual “sets” using software that can place multiple actors on the same screen. It’s a merging of theatre and film technology that she says could only have come out of this time.
“It’s not film, it’s not theatre – it’s some new hybrid,” says Taylor. “It’s something that comes completely out of this pandemic.”
Achieving their goal has required a lengthy pre-production storyboarding process, working out the final vision shot by shot, and use of the open-source Open Broadcast Software (OBS) program to merge actors into the virtual environment. These extra steps are in addition to the usual work of designing sets, costumes, props, lighting and sound – and, to bring the titular monsters to life, custom-made puppets.
“It’s a very, very big project,” she says. “It’s always a lot of work, but there is
so much forethought with this.”
Dance Keeps Moving
Filmmaking will play a big role in this semester’s dance concerts, as well, with each choreographic work being separately filmed. The finished pieces will be edited together to form online presentations in November and December.
As with theatre productions, a major complication is that the processes of choreographing and rehearsing, not to mention filming, are all happening under conditions of extreme social distancing.
“You get into a routine of knowing how to make something,” says associate professor Thaddeus Davis, who is creating a work for the fall concert. “But, with this, the lack of human energy exchange makes for a new challenge. It’s not good or bad, it just makes me focus in a different way than I had previously focused.”
Associate professor Tanya Wideman-Davis, also creating a work for the November concert, agrees. “Being in this process has made me think about new pathways for engagement and translation. How am I translating movement from wherever I am to the people on screen trying to get the intent and physicality of the choreography?”
To a large extent, the act of filming and editing will be as much a part of the final dance performances as the choreography itself, giving performers and audiences a chance to see the artform in a totally new way.
“Dance is a language of kinetic imagery and film is great for that,” says fall concert choreographer André Megerdichian, an assistant professor in the dance program. “It’s not a drawback. There’s no replacing the live, visceral response when we’re person to person, but that’s OK. If nothing else, our appetites are being whetted.”
“Art is happening a little differently, but it’s still happening, and it matters more than ever that we keep creating.”
Lilly Heidari, Senior Theatre Major
It’s a common refrain. We would all love to be back to “normal,” but we know that once theatres open again our sense of normalcy will have been forever changed. That’s creating a sense of renewed purpose for art-making and a palpable sense of excitement department-wide.
“I don’t think anyone can go through an experience like this and then walk out the other side the same as they were before,” says Megerdichian. “When we’re able to go back into the theatre, the gratitude will be overwhelming.”
Wideman-Davis thinks the current moment brings up an opportunity to question the entire model of traditional performance presentation. “How are we thinking about the elitism of the proscenium stage and who has access to even coming to see dance?” she asks. “I think it’s opening up…the many ways that dance can actually be presented.”
For most theatre and dance students, there is simply a sense of gratitude that they can still practice their craft even in the midst of the pandemic’s social constraints.
“It’s been really encouraging seeing how people keep creating art and expressing themselves in new ways,” says senior theatre major Lilly Heidari, an actor in She Kills Monsters. “Art is happening a little differently, but it’s still happening, and it matters more than ever that we keep creating.”
It will certainly be a season like no other, and one that will have lasting impact on our artists and our audiences.
“When we look back on this, we all want to be able to say we really did something,” says Lindsay Rae Taylor. “It is so important that we keep things going for the department and the students, that we still give them the chance to put their ideas out there. It’s about perseverance.”