Spring semester’s abrupt end hit the Boston College Theatre Department hard. Two plays that were in the works, City of Angels and The Wolves, were canceled, and acting classes had to be reimagined to fit an online format.
“At the time, it was really sad,” BC Theatre Department Chair Luke Jorgensen said. “The musical got canceled, there were students who were so excited, they had just got the lead, they had been to one rehearsal.”
“It was very devastating,” City of Angel’s former assistant director Ally Lardner, Lynch ’21, said of the cancellations.
But now, as students and faculty members reconvene on campus, the department is ready to start anew. Producing a play in the age of COVID-19 means striking an innovative balance, finding ways to stay true to the art of theatre while following public health guidelines.
This fall, BC Theatre is putting on two plays in two different formats. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night will be pre-recorded scene by scene in front of a green screen in Robsham Theater and stitched together using video editing. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, on the other hand, will be performed live over Zoom, with actors working from the safety of their own rooms.
“We’re theatre people. We have one set of skills that we’re used to, and now all of the sudden we’re doing green screens and filming and camera angles and all this other kind of stuff,” Jorgensen said. “We are all learning a lot every day, trying to keep up with how to make this happen.”
Producing these plays means tackling a host of challenges, from keeping rehearsals socially distanced to learning how to use unfamiliar film equipment. It was decided that the student musical, usually held in the fall, would have to be postponed because of the logistics of singing while wearing masks.
Even the idea of putting on a full-scale production in Robsham Theater had to be abandoned. There was simply no way to work around the issue of actors having to stay 6 feet apart, or for that matter, the difficulty of giving an expressive performance while wearing a mask. Those hurdles eventually led to the decision to turn both plays into socially distanced productions.
In the wake of these changes, Lardner, now the stage manager for Twelfth Night, has found herself taking on more tasks than a stage manager’s usual job description.
“I think the most important part is making sure that the actors are all safe and they feel advocated for,” Lardner said. “But it’s also going to be a bigger responsibility with making sure that everyone’s 6 feet apart at all times— if not more than 6 feet because they’re moving or they’re speaking loudly—disinfecting surfaces, and making sure that everyone is going to be okay.”
Scenes in Twelfth Night that require close contact among actors must be reworked entirely. In the final reunion scene, which features 14 characters, all of the actors can’t fit into the frame without bunching together. And a fight scene must be altered so that the actors look like they’re sword fighting without actually getting close to each other.
“I’m curious to see how the fight choreographer is going to ask actors to manipulate their own bodies and to move in their own spaces in a way that still kind of is artistic and cool and doesn’t look like people just writhing around,” Lardner said.
Because of copyright restrictions, the Theatre Department cannot prerecord a performance of Sweat. Live performances will happen at the same times as a regular play would: Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and a Sunday matinee. Attendance will be free, but viewers will have to register for a ticket in order for the department to avoid Zoom bombers.
We’re kind of discovering a new normal and new ways to be creative, given the circumstances, and new ways to connect.”‘Sweat’ stage manager Angela Salisbury, MCAS ’22
Adapting to new technology, while potentially troublesome, does come with its own set of advantages.
“Nothing compares to live theatre,” said Sweat stage manager Angela Salisbury, MCAS ’22. “I think we all miss it. I think it’s more about instead of figuring out how we can get as close as we want to be to what it used to be. We’re kind of discovering a new normal and new ways to be creative, given the circumstances, and new ways to connect.”
While conducting the play over Zoom isn’t anyone’s first choice, the technology’s film-like aspects could potentially lead to more nuanced performances, since the actors’ faces will be more visible, according to Salisbury.
The production is almost blurring the lines between theatre and film.
“If we do Twelfth Night like a movie, is it still theatre or is it becoming something else that we don’t have the language as theatre people to make?” Lardner said. “Because obviously, there is quite a lot of overlap between the two mediums, but they’re very different in technique.”
Jorgensen echoed this line of thinking, mentioning that without a live audience, both productions will be closer to film than theatre. The lack of an audience reaction, particularly in response to comedic moments, will be a challenge for students. Luckily, Sweat is a fairly serious play, and Jorgensen thinks that the actors will be able to handle the new format without losing their concentration.
In fact, as the Theatre Department shifts from in-person performances to technology-assisted substitutes, it has begun working with the Film Department to ease the transition. For Twelfth Night, the play will be recorded scene by scene using video equipment borrowed from the Film Department, and the cameraman is a student within the department.
“They’ve been really lovely in providing us stuff and support,” Lardner said.
Twelfth Night director Paula Plum, BC’s Monan professor in theatre arts for the 2020-21 year, has condensed the intricate script into 18 individual scenes. Each scene will be filmed on the mainstage of Robsham Theater in front of a large green screen. The trick will be to ensure that the actors are at a safe distance from one another, while also in a position where they won’t cast shadows on the screen and will be visible to the camera.
Plum and Lardner plan to dedicate the month of October to filming. Yet with the future of the semester so uncertain, students and faculty members working on both plays have had to make arrangements in the event that campus will close once again.
“We’ve developed a few contingency plans,” said Salisbury. “We get sent home, we’re sending them home with a little care kit—Sweat care packages—that’s a green screen, lights, props, anything they’ll need to put the show on from home.”
Salisbury has also had to take into account the impact that time differences would have on the production if students were sent home, and how all the equipment will fit into people’s homes.
“The era of COVID is going to spark a lot of weird and cool art, and I think it’s cool to explore that in an academic setting.”‘Twelfth Night’ stage manager Ally Lardner, Lynch ’21
In the case of Twelfth Night, filming would become more of a challenge. The actors would also receive take-home kits, and it would be up to the actors to film themselves in front of green screens. The resulting footage would have to be edited together to create the film, according to Lardner.
Jorgensen is more skeptical about the feasibility of the plan.
“If we’re not using the same camera, are we still trying to piece together my iPhone video camera with your camera?,” Jorgensen said. “I have a feeling if we get sent home that that will also become a Zoom performance.”
Whatever the future holds, there is a silver lining in the department’s exploration of new techniques.
“I do think it’s important to let art change with the times and to test what it can be,” Lardner said. “The era of COVID is going to spark a lot of weird and cool art, and I think it’s cool to explore that in an academic setting.”
The industry as a whole has been racing to adapt to life during a pandemic. Getting the rights to put on a production of a play over Zoom would have been unheard of six months ago, according to Jorgensen. But now it’s commonplace.
Even after life goes back to normal, the technical skills that theatre students have gained might come in handy for future productions.
“I guess just getting more well versed with that technology can definitely be applied to when you can start using more advanced projections and technology within the performances,” Salisbury said.
So far, students seem to be taking things in stride. Turnout was high for both plays’ auditions, according to Jorgensen and Lardner, and the actors seem genuinely excited to be a part of the cast.
While senior performers may be disappointed that they won’t get to appear in a traditional play during their last year, Lardner sees theatre as an essential way to welcome in freshman students.
“I think if the Theatre Department had decided ‘no theatre at all’ this semester or this year, it would have been kind of counterintuitive to what it means to be an artist,” Lardner said. “I think there’s also that element of creating community for first years. This kind of format might not be what the upperclassman actors might have wanted or expected for their senior year, but it’s so important to create spaces for first years to find their homes at BC.”
This year, BC theatre is taking on new forms, pushing the boundaries of what it means to put on a play. Thanks to a knack for improvisation and a willingness to step outside the box, it’s looking like the show may go on after all, even if it’s over Zoom.
Featured graphic by Ally Mozeliak / Heights Editor