Shenandoah Conservatory Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting student Rachel Louis ’20 shares what it was like to rise to the challenge of performing a classic play in the era of physical distancing, via Zoom, as well as her thoughts about the creative possibilities that arise when artists need to make adaptations to their craft.
My name is Rachel Louis. I’m a senior in the Acting B.F.A. program at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. I live at home in Loudoun County. Shenandoah University’s main campus is located two counties west of me.
My school made the wise decision of shutting down campus before we returned from spring break, which, as you can imagine, is a nightmare for a conservatory with a mostly performance-based curriculum. This semester, I was a part of the cast of “Blithe Spirit” by Noël Coward, with Padaric Lillis as guest director. Padaric is the artistic director of the Farm Theatre, which specializes in producing new plays.
Our production was scheduled to go up two weeks after spring break. The set was more than halfway built and costumes were almost done being made. We’d been memorizing over winter break and rehearsing throughout the spring semester. When our school announced that class would be online for the rest of the semester, we were devastated like many other theatre students across the country. After all, how can you have a theatre performance without a live audience?
But…could we have a live audience? Our school couldn’t completely cancel classes because the seniors had to graduate, so classes went online, mostly over Zoom, with the aid of an online system through Canvas. With these two tools, classes continued, albeit with a technology learning curve along the way.
Before the administration announced the semester-long shutdown, there was a brief limbo period where school was only suspended through the end of March; we were clinging to the hope of a rescheduling, so we continued to rehearse our lines over Zoom. When we realized rescheduling was out of the question, we decided we wanted to at least do a reading over Zoom so our friends and family could see what we’d been working on.
Then we started experimenting and began to get really excited about what we were creating. We found ways of passing props across camera, even from hundreds of miles away, as long as both people had a similar looking prop. I didn’t have a martini glass, but being only a half hour away from my scene partner, I drove to his apartment to pick up one of his. He washed it, placed it in a plastic bag, put it on the sidewalk, walked away, and then I picked it up. Social distancing!
We found new ways of playing with the camera, the lighting, the background, our costumes, and our makeup. We figured out how to “make eye contact” with each other across the camera, playing with where we needed to look to make the conversations appear natural. This meant that the actors couldn’t even look at each other because we had to be looking at a spot where the camera had full access to our eyes! We discovered all sorts of ways to blend TV acting and stage acting together that we’d never have thought of if it hadn’t been out of necessity. And isn’t that kind of what theatre’s all about?
We treated rehearsal as another opportunity for table work. We focused on storytelling with voice alone. One of our student groups, Playwrights, put up a student-written, student-acted Zoom reading as we were in our final days of “virtual tech week,” and we took inspiration from their director, Kit Wilder, who said they treated their text as a “radio play.” We knew Coward’s work would lend itself well to that 1930’s radio show feeling, and combined with everything else we’d discovered, we were excited to share our work.
We did a one-time live Zoom invited dress rehearsal on Sunday, March 29, for an audience of 100+ friends, family and colleagues. It was a live audience. We, the actors, couldn’t see or hear them until the end, but just knowing they were there was enough. Everyone—spread across the country—was invited to turn their video back on and have a talk-back with us at the end. How wild is that? How relevant, and important is that, to have that connection right now, when we can’t be physically with each other?
The other play going up this semester, “Hierarchy of Fish,” is a part of a new play imitative with the Farm. Directed by the head of the Shenandoah acting department, Scott Hudson, and written by Judith Leora, the play will be going up in April, also over Zoom. The cast has the unique opportunity to work with the playwright directly, as every rehearsal has been over Zoom.
I think there’s a big worry that live theatre will become irrelevant. It’s a fear that existed when movies and television first became popular too. We assume the audience to be lazy, or not willing to pay the ticket money. But personally, I don’t think we need to worry about theatre becoming obsolete. Theatre has been here longer than any of us have, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s the same reason we’re all getting cabin fever in this quarantine dystopia we’re living in: humans want to connect with other humans, and good theatre is one of the best ways of gathering together and creating those deep, meaningful conversations we crave.
As soon as social distancing measures are no longer necessary, theatres will be active again for sure. However, we have to acknowledge that this pandemic could go on longer than we’d like, which means theatres, and so many other businesses, could be closed longer than we’d like. So what else can artists do, but adapt? We are entertainers! Storytellers! Circumstances are changing, so we have to change with them! People need relief from reality now more than ever, and frankly, we’d be fools not to take advantage of the demand in the market. At the very least, we can try. Who knows, maybe we’ll invent a whole new medium of entertainment in the process! What do we have to lose? Why allow fear of the unknown to hold us back?