5C student actors and crew reimagine theater with virtual productions

Four college student actors rehearse in front of green screens over Zoom.
5C student actors, stage crew members and directors are finding new ways to rehearse and develop their virtual productions. (Courtesy: Giovanni Ortega)

As the age-old saying goes, the show must go on — for 5C student actors in spring productions during a remote semester, this means that they are now the ones in charge of their own lights, camera and action. 

The inability to put on live performances hasn’t stopped student actors, stage crew members or directors of the 5Cs. Instead, multiple shows, including “Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Sweat” are being rehearsed and developed virtually. 

In a creative turn of events, the stage has been brought to the actors: They were mailed everything they need to put on a virtual performance, including costumes, cameras and green screens. This process has been overseen by people such as Kira Edsell PO ’21, the stage manager for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“We’re taking over a small chunk of their house,” Edsell said.

As actors’ homes became their stages, they had to learn to wear many different hats. Olivia Silva SC ’21 plays Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” and has taken on roles she normally wouldn’t for an in-person theater performance.

“Assembling my equipment, setting up for the day, getting into costume, doing my hair and makeup — that’s something that we all have to do by ourselves,” Silva said. “At first, it was a little daunting to all of us, but as we’ve been doing it more and more, it’s just become more routine and actually has been really, really helpful in terms of life skills.”

In a shift from traditional live performances, many shows this semester are instead being filmed and edited together, then showcased online. For actors in these shows, this means their rehearsals and performances now emulate aspects of a film production rather than a traditional play or musical. This new dynamic brought about noticeable changes for actors like Hershey Suri PO ’21, who plays Jo in “Little Women: The Musical.”

“One of the biggest things that I know as a theater actress is that you feed off of the energy that your audience is giving you, and if you’re not feeding off the energy your audience is giving you, you’re feeding off the energy your scene partner is giving you. And in this situation you have neither,” Suri said. “Personally, a lot of the things that I was going through was like, ‘OK, how do I get in the zone? How do I create this world around me?’”

The process of filming also reduces the possibility for changes between different performances. In “Little Women: The Musical,” the performers’ audio was recorded separately from their video, and actors acted along to the prerecorded audio. Angelikah Chun PO ’21, who plays Meg, noticed the effects the standardization of the performance brought.

“I think we’re all in awe of how art and theater can still be sustained and still survive, even if it’s on a screen.” — Olivia Silva SC ’21

“Because you don’t have the live theater aspect, there’s a feeling of being a little bit less authentic, because unlike theater, where every single time you can do it a little bit differently … you’re rehearsing to a guided track, right? There’s not as much variation you can do with that,” Chun said. “I think that it’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think it’s just a different process than you normally have.”

However, even in the face of the challenges posed by virtual theater, actors are still finding moments of connection with their fellow cast members. 

“Sometimes I’ll do a scene with one person, and we’ll be like, ‘Whoa, even if we’re virtual, I could feel you; I could feel you in the room,’ and it was weird but really cool,” Silva said. “I think we’re all in awe of how art and theater can still be sustained and still survive, even if it’s on a screen.”

The accessibility of virtual theater has both pros and cons compared to live productions. As a medium, virtual theater has helped increase the number of different stories that can be told, according to Edsell.

“Now anyone who has access to a laptop or a phone can make a show and stream it on Zoom, try and get an audience and advertise on Facebook,” Edsell said. “And anyone who has a laptop or computer can find a bunch of free Zoom shows online that have very creative and unique original stories.” 

While virtual theater has made it easier to tell different stories, it’s also created issues for the cast and crew, who are all in different places with different degrees of accessibility to places to rehearse and perform. Tray Hammond PO ’22, who plays Mr. Brooke in “Little Women: The Musical,” has noticed the equity issues posed by virtual theater.

“I feel like theater already in itself can sometimes exacerbate inequalities … and that’s only further perpetuated by the fact that when you’re at home, you need to have the space to be able to do this, or have supportive parents [or] have a quiet place to record,” Hammond said. “It’s like all those different things that people were experiencing with Zoom school to another level, because all of a sudden you need somewhere where you can belt.”

Despite the changes and challenges that accompany the new virtual theater format, ultimately, many of the actors and crew members are excited and enthusiastic to be able to work and perform again with the 5C theater community.

“Obviously, there’s been a lot of road bumps, and it’s not the easiest process by any means,” Chun said. “But I think that ability to actually be like, ‘Oh yeah, I put on a full-length production at the end of this pandemic’ — it’s kind of crazy to be able to say that you have.”

Silva echoed the love for performing and theater at the heart of the virtual spring productions.

“A lot of artists I know, when they find something that they can do during this time, they’re like, ‘Yes, oh my God, I missed it so much,’” Silva said. “[Theater] is just our passion, and it’s similar to other passions where when you finally get back into it, you feel just incredible.”

“Little Women: The Musical” will be streamed online from March 4 to 7, 2021. “Much Ado About Nothing” will be streamed April 15 to 18, 2021. “Sweat” will be streamed April 1 to 4, 2021. To learn more about these and other spring productions, please visit this page.

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