For UMW Theater–the show must go on
Rehearsals for the University of Mary Washington’s spring season finale were on a roll when a pandemic pushed cast and crew off the Klein Theatre stage. So the group found a new space to practice for Much Ado About Nothing – online.
Streaming live to the public on Thursday at 7 p.m., the Shakespearean tale of love and deceit will come to life on Zoom through a careful choreography of mutes and un-mutes, and “start” and “stop” video. Scenes of ire and wit play out onscreen, instead of onstage. And, as the drama unfolds, the play shows the character of young actors determined to connect with each other and with viewers, despite a virus that threatened to stop them.
“The most rewarding aspect of this process has been the way our students have met this challenge,” said director Helen Housley, who retires this year after 29 UMW productions. “They’ve stepped up to own their roles and learned to communicate with their acting partners with honesty and believability.”
The lighting was already hung for the romantic comedy when UMW announced its transition to online learning would run into summer. Scenery, costumes and sound were halfway complete, said Theatre Chair Gregg Stull. A video available after Thursday’s performance, he said, will show “where we were with those elements when we walked away.”
With students dispersed across the state and beyond, the department decided to continue the production – key to 10 senior capstone projects – virtually. That’s when the drama really began.
“We’re in unchartered waters here, absolutely,” said Stull, who’s worked on more than 100 UMW productions onstage, but never online.
Housley trimmed the two-and-a-half-hour play to 50 minutes, giving all 18 cast members airtime and tying the story together with narration. Actors set up makeshift “stages” in bedrooms and living rooms. And UMW’s Digital Learning Support department got in on the act, securing a temporary Zoom license to accommodate a large audience.
“After that first rehearsal, it was clear that we were absolutely on the right path,” said Production Advisor Brandon Prendergast, who led the technical side of the effort to go virtual. “This approach was in the best interest of our students.”
Suddenly in charge of their own lighting, sound and camerawork, actors cleaned up their backdrops, turning off ceiling fans and closing closet doors, all while making the leap from stage to camera, which calls for more subtle expressions and gestures.
“I want to act professionally, so I’ve taken this opportunity to learn more about on-camera acting,” said senior Jessica Elkins, who uses a three-color ring-light to Zoom in to rehearsals from her home in Spotsylvania.
Technical problems – frozen images, lag times and blips – were smoothed out, and contingency plans for last-minute mishaps were made.
“There are times when I’m not even seeing the face of the person I’m speaking to,” said senior Mitch Coomer, who rehearses in his basement in Fairfax. “It takes a lot of focus to stay engaged.”
Without Professor of Theatre and Dance Kevin McCluskey’s costumes, the cast tried wearing show T-shirts, but identical outfits made it difficult to distinguish between characters. So each actor sent photos of six different tops to McCluskey, who chose a palette of colors.
Making time for rehearsals has been intense but worth it, said sophomore Erin Schoff, who serves as stage manager. “I don’t get to watch the patrons flow into the house … but seeing my friends continue to rehearse a production we’ve put so much of our hearts into is reassuring right now.”
At a time when college students across the country are feeling isolated, at UMW, a virtual performance has been a bridge – one that will be shared with viewers this week.
“In a world that’s turned topsy-turvy,” Housley said, “theatre can still bring us together.”
UMW Theatre’s performance of Much Ado About Nothing has reached capacity on Zoom, but viewers may still tune in for free on Thursday at 7 p.m. by using this YouTube link.