This year’s UNCG Theatre season is anything but typical.
The challenges imposed by the pandemic might have, at first, made a live theater production seem like an impossible goal. How could actors, directors, designers, crew, and audience members participate in a production when the very act of being in the same space together – an essential part of theater – was not possible?
However, this week the season’s first show “Marisol” opens at UNC Greensboro, with a live performance for 25 UNCG students in a strictly socially-distanced Taylor Theatre, and available streaming for viewers at home Oct . 15-17, through www.uncgtheatre.com, with tickets priced at $5.
In the story, Marisol Perez, a young Puerto Rican woman, balances her Manhattan copy editing job and a life at home in her Bronx neighborhood, with a Guardian Angel by her side. But, the angel leaves her on her own, facing homelessness, prejudice, sexuality issues, and loss of faith. In a near-apocalyptic world, Marisol’s story unfolds as a journey through injustices of class and caste, race and gender, and economics.
Professor of theater Jim Wren, who has overseen more than 30 UNCG Theatre productions, is the director for “Marisol”, UNCG Theatre technical director Chip Haas is the production manager, and senior theater student Amber Bidwell is the stage manager. Read their words below from several interviews about their production process, what they’ve learned, and what it means for theater students and for theater as a whole.
How did UNCG Theatre approach the production season for a pandemic era?
CH: June, I guess, is when we started having meetings. Several of us pulled together and formed a “what the heck are we going to do next semester” meeting. We knew that if there was any possibility of us doing live performances, it was important that we were going to do it mainly for the students. Our theater performances are for us to provide opportunities for our students, both the performers, but also for our design and production students. We have a very large BFA in design and production here, with over 60 students in the program, and doing online Zoom performances can work okay for actors, but does nothing for the design and production students. So we knew we had to take advantage of whatever opportunities would be presented to us, and we were determined to try to do something. Otherwise, there’s just no purpose for being here, because design tech is all hands-on. It doesn’t work well, just talking to them – they need to be practicing and doing it and all that. And once it became clear to us that the University would have opportunities for on-campus and face-to-face learning, we started figuring out our protocols and how we’re going to actually make this whole thing work. And a lot of us belong to different organizations across the country that are also working to find solutions, since this is a new world for everybody. So, I’ve sat in on many forums and meetings and, and emails and stuff from people saying “how are you doing? And how are you running your theater program?” And everyone’s got a slightly different approach. But it was, you know, our concern was, how are we going to do this safely. And by the time we got to August, we pretty much dialed in what we were going to do.
AB: At our first design meeting, Chip really laid it down. He said: we’re trying to do all these things and have a season, but it’s going to have to be different. And at the very beginning I knew we had a new big challenge to overcome. I’m so glad we got to do a show and plan a season, but it’s with more caution, and we have to be much more aware of all our actions. It was unclear for a while if we’d get to have a show, but we’ve made it and we’ll do the performances and streamed production safely.
(What they did? For one thing, they decided on a one-week run for the shows, where at each performance 25 UNCG Theatre students would be allowed as audience members, and the production would be filmed for streaming for all other viewers. Seats for students are clearly labeled for spacing and masks are mandatory, for audience members and actors. The plan was approved by a consultant that reviewed CVPA procedures. For the streaming version, they’re running a two-camera shoot, with the ability to zoom in at certain moments, and to do some light editing before the production is made streamable. Despite the ability of the cameras to focus on certain actors at certain times, the technical aspects beyond the camera are still focused on the live production, in order to train theater students in staging and blocking for their craft. The result will be a high quality film of a live production.)
What has been different about staging and designing “Marisol” during COVID, as compared to how you would have done it pre-pandemic, and what have the biggest challenges been?
JW: There are multiple challenges, but I think perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve experienced is simply creating the world where the mask and distance is not a struggle, but a given. How can we, in a sense, relax into these restrictions and not – to use an acting term – “play the obstacle”?
Interestingly, “Marisol” contains a theatricality and takes place in a world where the “new normal” of the pandemic is easily navigated. The most obvious physical challenges deal with both the intimacy and violence contained in the script. We, as a company, have hopefully created a theatrical convention and language that conveys both in this world.
CH: A lot of meetings, a lot of prep time… Fortunately, the show “Marisol” is a fairly contemporary show, so we’re able to pull a lot from previous shows, and for costumes, things from actors’ personal wardrobes as well as from the costume inventory. When a show’s contemporary, we can often pull it together from what we have, and that’s going to be our theme for the whole academic year. We’re working with tight budgets and therefore motivated to get more creative. We tell the students: It’s not a problem; it’s just a different challenge. For students, it puts them in a tighter budget world, which is probably what they’re going to be working in when they graduate. Sometimes you have to do something on a small budget and make it look good. And once again, they’ve stepped up to the challenge really well. I want to give a lot of credit to our students and how they’ve handled this.
For safety, we’ve limited costume changes. Normally, this show would have had a lot more variety of costume changes, but since we’re reducing person-to-person contact and maintaining social distancing, costuming was simplified – very few costume changes over the course of the show.
Jim Wren did some interesting blocking on the show. For some of the stage combat moments, it’s a more stylized fashion. So the actors are physically separated even though they’re fighting. And then, one of the debates we had was how we were going to handle masking. The costume designer ultimately decided that the masks are part of their costume. They fit with their characters, and are part of their character. We had the discussion of ‘do we go with the uniform mask on everybody? And kind of hope they just kind of aren’t noticeable? Or do we just embrace the fact that they’re wearing masks?’ And for this show, we decided to embrace it. We may do differently for another show, but for this one, they are part of the action of the show. The show is set kind of in a post-apocalyptic moment, so the mask fits that. It does create vocal challenges but it still blends well into this show.
AB: We’ve had to do regular temperature checks, and screening questions every single day, for each person involved in the production – actors, directors, anybody who comes into the rehearsal space. There was a lot of “guys, we need social distance; hey, guys, no clumping up in areas.” And I’m always thinking of how we can safely do this, and reminding everyone that you need masks at all times and social distance at all times. Make sure you come in a little early to get your temperature checked. And it still doesn’t change, no matter what else is happening. Everyone working on the stage or backstage has to be checked. We are always implementing all of these safety protocols and cautionary procedures.
This show is very physical, with a lot of fight combat in it. And Professor Wren had to figure out a way that we could do fight combat, but without actors touching each other, or even getting close to one another. It’s strange, and at first, it was like: is this really gonna work? But it really does fit in like, some weird, artsy way. I think it works, and it’s really interesting having the director work with actors who are all six feet apart and everyone’s wearing masks. And for me, the challenge is all about meeting new safety protocols, making sure I’m on top of everything, and making sure I have a lot of communication with my production manager and with the director.
What has surprised you the most, or what are the things you’ve learned or been inspired by?
JW: I’ve been most inspired by the energy and determination of the entire community of students and faculty who have embraced all of the safety protocols in order to create their work. Everyone dove into the process with full commitment.
CH: Our students have bought in quite well to this. Really. And I’d say overall UNCG students have done really well as far as COVID safety. And our theater students handled what they needed to do to carry out the production and campus life safely. I’m really pleased with how the students at UNCG have done. Because we’re still here, we’re still going.
AB: I think of how social distance is something many people consider from the audience perspective. But it’s just as important for the designers and all the people that create a production. And each day we’re building this, we didn’t really know how long we’d be doing it. Would we actually have a show? And every day, it was like, wow, we did this. Just like the character in the show, we worked in the new reality we’re living in. The story turned out to be very relevant to the time that we’re living right now.
Are there interesting or useful things that you have discovered during this process that you’ll take with you to future productions?
JW: Well, I think everyone jumped to the “Zoom reading” model of performance pretty quickly. I think that’s a quick Band Aid, but not a long-term solution. I myself am having a bit of “Zoom fatigue” and don’t relish the idea of spending more time in front of my computer. I think work that is being done exploring new spaces, outdoor presentations, drive-in productions, etc., are some of the more exciting ideas.
AB: I’m relatively new to stage management, and I think everything that’s happened during the show I’ll be taking with me into the real world. The way that the rehearsal space was created I’ll take with me because it’s like connecting with the actors in a weird social distancing way. Usually I would have snacks for them, so they can come up to my table, and we can chit chat during break. But now, when we have a few minutes, we go outside, so for the connection with the actors that I had to figure out something new. It’s a lot of solving problems differently, trying to think outside of the box with it.
And, even though we’re in this pandemic, I still want theater and rehearsals and performance to be fun. I still wanted everyone involved to feel positive and hopeful that we actually get to do this show and finish the season. I think, even though the world that we’re living in isn’t the best right now, I still want it – some fun, just a little fun. And I think our production of “Marisol” has brought a lot of hope, to the future of theater, and especially for UNCG.
Interviews by Susan Kirby-Smith, Matt Bryant, and Avery Campbell, University Communications
Photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications