Theater students adapt to holding classes, performances online

Tayla Underwood prepares for Essential Theatre virtual audition.

By Kelsey Gilmore

Theaters all across America closed their doors in the spring of 2020 due to the effects of the coronavirus. However, this year they are beginning to open back up, but with some changes. Productions are now being streamed, and theater practitioners have to submit videos to audition.

Instructors are starting to prepare their students for this new way of theater. Due to social distancing requirements on campuses, theater instructors and students have not been allowed to meet in large gatherings and rehearse. Classes are being held over Zoom, which is a wireless video communication enterprise.

The classes offered in the theater curriculum have been adjusted to accommodate the social distancing guidelines. Sophomore theater students at Florida A&M University (FAMU) are required to take Elements of Acting and Advanced Acting. These classes are hands-on and focus on partner work, ensemble acting and advancing your knowledge in the craft. However, after classes at the university went strictly online, those theater classes had to make some significant changes.

Instead of the partner work and small scenes, students spent the majority of the semester working on monologues, a long speech by one person during a conversation.

Difficult to Connect

Sophomore theater major Todd Bellamy II feels that his theater training is being cheapened by these stipulations.

“Theater is a physical and in-person connection,” Bellamy said. “Being online is fine, but the in-person connection is gone, and it’s a little bit harder to act in front of a computer screen.”

At FAMU, the Essential Theatre has to abide by the health center guidelines to be approved to put on their productions. Actors and crew members have to be tested twice a week and go under strict quarantine a week before the show. Face masks are required to be worn at all times during rehearsal unless a face shield is present. Musical productions have not been allowed due to the amount of breath being released from the singers.

However, these safety precautions have brought about their own separate challenges. Face masks muffle the actors’ voices, and face shields reflect the glare from the stage lights hiding the actors’ faces.

In theater, the movement of the body and its ability to translate mood and intention is essential. When performing in front of an audience with hundreds of patrons, not everyone will be able to see the facial expression of the actor performing. While on camera, the actor’s faces are zoomed in so that the audience will catch the subtle movements in the face or body movements.

Directors in the Essential Theatre have bought clear masks for their performers. This way, the shields’ glare won’t block actors’ facial features, and the audience will still be able to see their reactions.

Junior and senior theater majors annually attend the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC). This conference allows students to audition for professional theaters, jobs and graduate schools. This year, those auditioning were instructed to make a video submission. This video submission would later be reviewed for virtual callbacks.

Is This the New Normal?

Essential Theatre director Luther Wells informs his students that this new contactless setting might be the new normal for the industry.

“I think that is one of the beautiful things that has come out of this pandemic,” Wells said. “It has forced theater people to work in a means and modality in which they haven’t before.”

For theater graduate programs, it is customary for the student to fly out and attend the audition in person.  This year, every student is being instructed to upload their video to the school’s website for review.

Senior theater major Melleya Merriman explains that the act of submitting a video is not as daunting as standing in front of the program’s director and other staff.

“Of course, the movement to online theater isn’t ideal, but in some aspects, I have enjoyed it a bit better,” Merriman said. “But not only was I able to audition for graduate school with my video, but any play they had to offer. Video submissions are nothing new to the theater world, and now, due to circumstances, I’m more knowledgeable on how to do it right.”   

Junior theater major Chazriq Clarke believes that this transition into the virtual setting would bring more people to the theater, but may remove its genuineness.

“It gives the actor more time to prepare and get that perfect take,” Clarke said. “On the other hand, I guess you can say it takes away that authenticity of truly nailing that one time on the stage.“

The Essential Theatre produced the play “School Girls or the Mean African Girls Play” this spring, and used the clear masks for everyone in their production. It also will stream the FAMU Essential Theatre “Senior Showcase” today and tomorrow on its You Tube page at 6:30 p.m. During the showcase senior-level students will demonstrate some of what they have learned during their time as theater majors at FAMU.

Hopefully, the theater will return to live performances in the fall of 2021, but theater professionals believe that this new streaming service will be here to stay.

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