When COVID-19 made the prospects of presenting summer repertory theatre shows live unlikely, UF School of Theatre + Dance directors, designers, and actors turned to creative solutions.
The first show of the summer, Coherence, directed by Travis Greisler, was presented to audiences through a live Zoom interface. Greisler and co-writer Mathew Francis originally set out to create an in-person performance, adapted from the film of the same name.
When it became clear a live version was not possible, Greisler and Francis decided to create a virtual version.
“We’re very, very excited that UF was willing to still support the process and the development of this piece because there still was a lot of value for Matt and I in it,” Greisler said. “Not often as writers you get the opportunity to just sit with a group of actors for as long as we have."
The summer repertory theatre allows students to work with industry professionals on new productions, as the writers and directors of professional theatre companies piece together new works.
“We really feel like we are walking away from this experience with the play in shape,” Greisler said. “I don’t think I’m done with it. I’m not done writing. What people will see is not a final product in any way. It’s where we have landed in this process that we are very proud of.”
To keep the idea of live theatre involved in the performance, the Zoom play incorporated sound design as well as renderings of costuming, lighting, and set design that would have been a part of the live play. “What we’ve tried to do is continue to remind the audience that this was meant to be theatrical and not a return to a cinematic version,” Greisler said.
Scenic design by Halea Jo Downing. Costume design by Jordan Watson. Lighting design by Joe Crumlish. Composition and sound design by Jing Zhao. Stage management by Jordan Lindquist.
Cast: Anna Roman, Benjamin Brandt, Gregory Mallios, Stephanie Gutierrez-Diaz, Zöe Wilde, Alainna Whatley, Bakari Garvin, Emily McAndrew, Aaron Kienstra, Emma Anne Wedemeyer.
To bring a live theatre experience to a virtual space, students like Jordan Lindquist, the stage manager for Coherence, played an integral role in bringing all of the components together.
“Something that we as a team were really passionate about was continuing to bring the designer visions to life,” Lindquist said.
To do so, a lot of pieces had to come together seamlessly for the audience in Zoom.
“In a separate channel from the Zoom, I’m also calling all the cues and helping to execute our composer’s vision, our lighting designer’s vision, integrating in design elements from our scenic designer as well,” Lindquist said.
In July, the School of Theatre and Dance presented its second show, Remove Before Flight, a devised play directed by Ryan Hope Travis and written in collaboration with the ensemble. The scenes were filmed and edited together before being presented to the audience through Vimeo.
Like Coherence, Remove Before Flight sought to retain some elements of a typical theatre process.
The lead of the play, Haley Johnson, said the original plan was to film scenes individually in separate rooms.
“But Ryan was like, ‘Why can’t we just continue the rehearsal process? Let me be there on Zoom and your partner will be there so you have the audio.’ Then he edited it all together,” Johnson said.
Johnson noted some major differences between live and virtual theatre.
“Before this, I was all about theatre,” Johnson said. “With theatre, it’s an electricity that you don’t really get when you’re filming. Meaning, it’s live. It’s one take. The audience is tangible. You see them right there. So, for example, if I made a joke. It lands. You hear the audience’s laughter and it’s a constant energy flow.”
But with the need to tone down large facial expressions and actions for the camera, Johnson found new opportunities.
“It was beautiful because we really got to know our character more,” she said.
The unknown of the new formats for the 2020 summer repertory season brought excitement for what’s new and a hope to return to the stage in the future.
And as Greisler said, we will definitely return.
“It will happen, it is inevitable,” Greisler said. “We have been doing theatre since the dawn of time. We will continue to do it forever and ever. This is a weird little pause sidestep towards some new versions and hopefully dismantling of things and some rebuilding of things.”
See the full list of cast and designers from the productions by downloading the Coherence and Remove Before Flight playbills.