Show must go on as theatre department remains undeterred by pandemic

Middle school students put on the virtual production of “Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon” on Oct. 24. (Photo by Margaret Zirwas)

By this time of year, theatre arts teacher and director Rebecca Rhinehart usually would have put on at least two stage productions and be in the works for a third. 

This year, there have been none. 

Instead, for the past three months, the theater department has been auditioning, rehearsing and performing almost completely virtually, Rhinehart explained.

Senior Nate Eisenberg explained that instead of on-stage performances, the department has switched to using Zoom webinars. The cast performs as co-hosts while audience members purchase tickets and are given a link to watch as a participant, Eisenberg added. 

Rhinehart said she has not been deterred by this new method of performing and remains confident in the department’s ability to perform virtually. 

“It is theatre. We are doing it live, and there is still the thrill of a live performance,” she said of the virtual shows.

The changes have been different for the cast and crew, Eisenberg said. For the cast, everything has been done virtually.

“Rehearsal is pretty much just a Zoom, and you mute yourself and turn off your video when it’s not your line,” Eisenberg said. 

For crew members, things have turned out differently. Sophomore Rae Nack had an interesting experience in her role as the middle school stage-manager for “Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon,” one of the middle school virtual plays. 

“While the actors are at home, the stage managers and assistant directors are in the Dargusch Theatre, which we’ve nicknamed the War Room,” Nack said. 

From the War Room, Nack and her fellow crewmates have a variety of responsibilities for making sure the show runs smoothly. This includes giving actors and other crew members cues through Zoom’s chat feature and changing hosts’ names as they play different characters throughout the show, while also making sure that each actor’s props, costumes and set up are all up to par, Nack explained.

Tech director William Bowman, who assumed this role after it opened up this year, explained that crew members were divided into categories based on their interests, whether that be videography, set (virtual backgrounds), costumes or props.

These students met in-person but only in small groups and had roles that required an entirely new set of skills: Photoshop and Chrome replaced hammers and nails for the set crew that usually builds large sets for the stage Bowman said.

“We gave them sheets of how many different virtual backgrounds we would need and descriptions of those sets, and then they either found backgrounds online or created backgrounds themselves using Photoshop,” Bowman explained. 

Junior Lin McDow explained that actors were given green screens to set up behind their cameras for these virtual backgrounds while props and costumes were delivered to their front porches.  To make scenes between actors look more realistic, most actors have a stand-in at home, making cross-scene interactions happen, McDow said.

“Each person has a helper crew member, who is usually just a sibling in their room with them doing this,” McDow said.

McDow described a situation in which one character is tasked with throwing a baby doll at another.

“Obviously, you can’t throw a baby doll at yourself, so the one character will throw the baby doll and at the same time the helper crew member will throw a baby doll at you in person, and the effect is that it looks like the baby doll is actually being thrown,” McDow explained.

For McDow, the switch to an entirely online production has been a positive, as online practice gives them more freedom with their time. 

“One thing that’s nice is that you don’t have to go anywhere,” McDow said. “Rehearsal is at 7:00 so I can eat dinner at 6:56 and then just run upstairs and hop on the call.”

However, there are some downsides of online rehearsals. 

“I definitely miss getting to just mess around with friends before we start or when we’re not on stage,” Eisenberg said.  

Rhinehart said that these new developments will be good for the students in the long run. 

“The students are learning to be independent, and they’re also learning how to act in front of a camera, which is important because there are a lot more roles in television and movies than there are on Broadway,” Rhinehart said.

The department hopes to move back to in-person productions post-pandemic, especially for the upcoming musicals, she added. Rhinehart said she is nervous, but also excited about the possibility.

“Covid is on the rise, and my first priority is keeping everyone safe, but despite all the precautions we’re going to take, I still think that we’ll be able to do really great theater,” said Rhinehart.