I’m post-dating this so that it will be hidden until after the meeting to decide invited productions for the Region 2 festival. I saw these shows from October 30-November 7.

One cool think that the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival does is to send professors and professional theater people out to see university shows and provide a response to the cast and crew afterwards. I love doing these—I get some solo time in the car with an audio book that is not about dragons, I get to meet other artists and see new spaces, I get to see a show, and people are required to pretend that they care what I think. After a two year hiatus from in-person responses, I got back into doing them live. I kind of went bananas—I did five responses in eight days.

During the lockdown times, I did a number of responses, but they all felt…weird. Placeless. Some of the performances were strong. Many of the schools experimented with form, entering things like a dance concert made up of solo pieces, a radio play, a video game. Anything they could do to keep going when the theaters were dark. I remember the performances, but my responses blur together. At one of the schools I visited last week, a faculty member asked me if I had done a response there before. I said that I had seen a play there a few years ago, but not done a response for it. One of the faculty members said, confused, “No, I remember you. You responded to my Romeo and Juliet.” I played along like I had any idea what she was talking about, and it was only half an hour later that I remembered—it had been online, and had voices over (very cool) still illustrations. I didn’t respond at anywhere, which is why I didn’t connect those dots.

Although I usually do a designated entry for each show that I see, I’m never going to get those written, so instead just doing a brain dump of all five of them here.

The shows were:

  • Today Is My Birthday at Bridgewater College
  • Head Over Heels at James Madison University
  • Love and Information at Millersville University
  • The Cherry Orchard at Alvernia University
  • Sensitive Guys at Albright College

I was, of course, alert to the various COVID precautions, curious how the different schools were handling it. All of the schools I visited had a COVID mandate, as well as a requirement for masking in indoor spaces. Some of them allowed patrons to select their own seats, which let people sit with others that they’re in regular contact with, while creating buffers between groups. Others had every other seat and/or every other row taped off, which I thought was probably less effective. They sold ~ the same percentage of the house, but the gaps between people were smaller, because there weren’t clusters. I’m not sure if they were selling at reduced capacity; in college theaters, we’ve been playing to half-full houses since before it was cool. Most of the plays were performed unmasked; only Love and Information included masked performers (for this specific play, the anonymizing effect of the masks was pretty cool). Millersville was also, I believe, the only one of the schools that had a requirement for individuals to maintain a specific distance if unmasked; in one scene, a performer plays the flute, and they mentioned that they put her so far to stage left that she was barely on the stage at all, and marked out a twelve-foot circle of empty space between her and the next-closest performer. Several of the schools told me about how the pandemic influenced their show selection. Many of these plays, especially Today Is My Birthday and Love and Information, could have easily transitioned to an online format.

I mention all of this, in part, to present something of a contrast. Recently, I received an invitation to see a show at a local community theater. The production was a musical that involved a lot of children. I contacted the box office to ask what their COVID precautions were. For context, this is in an area with fewer than 60% of adults vaccinated and ~ 115 new cases per 100,000 of population over the past 7 days, which constitutes a high rate of transmission. Here’s how our coversation went:

What is your COVID safety policy?

We’re encouraging people to wear masks in the building.

Are your performers vaccinated, tested, or masked [keeping in mind, a lot of the performers are under 12]?

We don’t ask about people’s personal medical information. It’s hard to hear actors in masks.

Are you selling reduced capacity houses?

No, in fact we’re nearly sold out! So you should get your tickets soon.

How’s your HVAC or ventilation in the space?

I don’t know, nobody has checked.

So…you’re doing nothing?

We’re deep cleaning between every performance. You can sit in the back if it makes you more comfortable.

Friends, that is not a COVID safety policy. That is straight-up irresponsible. Deep cleaning is basically useless against COVID (it moves through the air). It’s nice, but mostly in a makes-you-feel-safer way, not a makes-you-safer way. I can’t get over how many theaters, most of them at the community-theater level, many of them involving children, I have seen operating with essentially no safety plan. When I’ve argued that this is completely unsafe, the responses are usually, “But it’s just community theater” or “But then we can’t afford to do shows.” I love live theater, but it’s not worth this flagrant disregard for safety. Also, doing this only keeps the pandemic going. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I dream of a day when I don’t have to know what the COVID case numbers are like in my area (terrible, is what they’re like right now). We can’t get there by pretending it’s not serious. And especially when it’s using unpaid performers, some of them children, and putting them into these situations because “the show must go on.” It makes me absolutely livid. Please, do us all a favor, and ask about COVID safety at performance venues. Call the box office. Write letters to their boards. Make it uncomfortable.

ANYWAY the college shows I saw were all clearly thinking about keeping people from dying and so right off the top, that’s a point in their favor.

Part of doing responses is that I typically have a meal with the department faculty, guest artists, and some students beforehand. I forgot how much I liked this part—I like getting to connect with the artistic team and learn a bit about their journey before I see what they have created. Having that context gives me better capacity to respond well to what they’re doing, because I can better see where the work was. I found the repeated things that I heard in these conversations extremely interesting, because these schools were all very different. Despite being a stone’s throw from each other, for example, Bridgewater College’s and JMU’s theater departments are polar opposites in many ways. But when I asked about how things feel this year, in this time of emerging from lockdown, themes repeated. Here are some anonymized, but representative, sentiments.

“There’s a huge pressure to be ‘back,’ to act like everything is normal. It’s not normal. For some people, it will never be normal. There hasn’t been space to process any of this tragedy. We’re just supposed to jump back into it.”

I heard these sentiments over and over, from students and from faculty. When professors said this, I wanted to say, “You’re in charge. Why aren’t you making that space?” But I know why. Academic theater departments, already struggling pre-pandemic, are fighting to stay above water. I can think of at least ten universities that I have some kind of connection with that lost their theater departments (or downgraded from a major to a minor) in 2017-2019. Others have had their budgets cut in half between 2019 and 20201. This includes even departments that regularly win the big awards at KCACTF. It includes the ones who see a majority of their graduates become professionals in the industry. So when they get the green light from their university’s safety monitors to get back to work, they don’t wonder if that’s a great idea. They don’t have a choice.

“Everyone’s stamina is so low right now. We’ve had to change our rehearsal schedule to accommodate it.”

One strange effect of this two years out from doing live theater, is that we are all functioning at diminished capacity for sustained, focused work. We’re going to have to build back up. Several of the schools I met with said that they had experimented with shortening rehearsal sessions, building in an extra day off each week, and, most significantly, getting rid of 10-out-of-12s (an industry standard where, for one or more days of tech week, everyone works basically a 12-hour day, with two hours of breaks sprinkled in. It’s unsafe, it’s ineffective, I don’t do them, and there’s a big industry movement that came out of the pandemic to get rid of this practice). One question people are asking themselves is, “Do we really need to work in the way that we used to?” I had hoped that one thing that would come out of this hard reset on the whole industry is a reconsideration of our unhealthy work culture. It seems like, at least at the university level, that is happening.

“Students are more scared to take risks, more scared to make eye contact, more hesitant about making big choices.”

A number of my colleagues mentioned having moments in rehearsal where a student would start some piece of the work, and then stop, look at them, and say, “Wait, is this where I’m supposed to be?” Having been behind the shields of screens for so long, everyone feels the eyes watching them in a new and intense way. “I just have to keep telling them, even if it’s wrong, do it with commitment!” one director told me. That ability to jump in and keep going, to make mistakes in public, takes time to learn. It’s going to take time to re-learn.

“I never realized before how crucial oral tradition is in keeping college theater departments operating. You know, you get your first-years, and they’re in a production with older students, and they learn by watching, This is how we act in rehearsal, these are the expectations, this is the weird trick to get the lights on. We have this ‘COVID gap,’ because the people who are juniors now haven’t been in our theater spaces since they were first-semester freshmen. The younger students have never done an in-person show here. All of that cultural knowledge is lost and has to be rebuilt.”

I think about this idea of theater department culture a lot, perhaps because I float between so many different schools. I’ve often wondered about the mechanisms by which this culture gets created (how much comes from the faculty? How much arises from the students?) and whether one can influence it as it develops. I hadn’t ever considered how it might feel to have it wiped out entirely.

On to the shows:

Today is My Birthday

I was glad my first response, after this fallow time, was at Bridgewater College. I know that school well, as I’ve taught and directed there, so I feel comfortable in their spaces and with their faculty. Today is My Birthday, by Susan Soon He Stanton, is a fairly new play, which tells the story of a young woman who has returned to her hometown in Hawaii, after studying journalism in New York. She’s trying to figure out her path, while navigating her parents’ divorce. The department selected this play in part because it had the potential to be translated into an online format seamlessly; nearly all of the interaction takes place on the phone, so the performers were each in their own spaces on the stage and not looking at each other, as a function of the story. It could easily have been a Zoom play, and at the beginning of the semester, the possibility that it would have to become one on short notice was clearly still a factor. Seeing it live reminded me how powerful human interaction is onstage—two of the characters were together for the whole show (a pair of wacky morning DJs), and their scenes were the most engaging, because the story allowed them to engage with each other.

Head Over Heels

JMU is known for having a solid musical theater program, so responding to those is always a treat. I wasn’t disappointed—the choreography and music was fantastic. I wasn’t familiar with Head Over Heels going in, which is also a fun experience. It’s a jukebox musical, and also a retelling of Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia. The student costume designer did a great job of marrying Elizabethan lines with more modern colorways. Some of the design, including puppetry, was delightful and surprising. I saw a substantial amount of strong acting choices at the scene level. One thing that I commented on and keep coming back to is that the place that seemed to be lacking was in using contrast to create the characters’ journeys. The story of the play is that the court of this king goes forth looking for something different and on the literal journey, they make discoveries that transform all of them to such an extent that when they find what they were looking for, they realize they’re back where they started—but everything is different. The choreography showed this journey (sharp, metronomic movement early in the play, flowing, jazzy movement late), but the acting didn’t. I wondered if this is connected to the COVID shifts many people noticed. Showing development requires contrast. You have to give your characters some place to go. Maybe playing people whose way of being in the world was very different from their own made the student actors uncomfortable. Maybe they shied away from that discomfort instead of exploring it.

Love and Information

I hadn’t ever responded to a show at Millersville before, but I had heard good things about their work, so I leapt at the chance. Love and Information is a weird one, even for Caryl Churchill (and that’s saying something). The play is arranged in seven sections that have to go in a specified order, but within each of those sections are vignettes that can be presented in any order. There are also ~20 optional scenes that can be placed anywhere in the script. Many (all?) of the scenes don’t have speech headings or indications of where the speaker changes. In theory, I think this whole play could be a monologue. Because of the nature of the script, a big part of what made this production successful was the entire team’s work at selecting and ordering the scenes in such a way that it created some (?) cohesion.

I’m usually not a big fan of plays without a plot, which this definitely is. I feel a little panicky, wondering whether there’s any kind of plan. One thing I found comforting about this production is that the design had such care and cohesion that I felt able to relax. The number seven repeats a bunch in the script, so the designers took that as a jumping-off point. All of the objects on stage were either black or one of the seven ROYGBIV colors. The play is about the contrast between the analog or biological and the digital, and that tension was present throughout the design. My favorite piece of the design work (although, let’s be clear, it was all very strong) was the audio design that used live plants to select bits of prerecorded dialog and present them, also setting their volume. The plants were onstage, and after the show, the sound designer showed me the electrodes that read the plants’ electro-magnetic field and some how…translated that information into a selection and a level. It’s different every night.

The thing I will remember about this show and try to apply in my own work is how integrated it was. All of the design elements worked in perfect harmony with each other. Even though the script is a wild ride, I felt like I was in a cohesive world with its own inner logic.

The Cherry Orchard

Weirdly, I haven’t seen much Chekhov, ever, so this was fun! The director is a bit of an expert, and translated the text himself. One thing I thought the production did well was to capture the way Chekhov can be extremely funny and also terribly sad. The scene where the whole family is weeping and Lophakin is dancing around in triumph was both. I kept waiting for it to end, but Lophakin kept singing and dancing, on and on. Something about the relentlessness of it made me amused, and then sad, and then angry. There was time to feel a lot of things.

The cast was all pretty young, but each of them had strong moments. The ensemble had a good connection with each other, and from our conversation afterward, I could tell that they had thought about the play and how it connected to their own lives, to the ways in which they feel stuck or powerless

Sensitive Guys

Another new play, this one by MJ Kaufman. It’s a play about campus sexual assault that manages to be funny and challenging all at the same time. Six women portrayed all of the characters, so I was, of course, paying a lot of attention to their cross-gender work. It was very strong, mostly because of its specificity. Nobody was playing “a man” in a generic or cartoonish way; they each thought about the individual characters’ relationship to masculinity.

This play didn’t have a showy design; there was one simple set, the costumes didn’t change much, the lighting was subtle and enhanced by a projection on the back wall. This allowed the focus to be all on the actors, which was where it belonged. Their technique was flawless, across the ensemble. So many things—physical awareness, vocal control, character intention, the development of scenes and of the story overall.

The director also mentored a student assistant director. One of the scenes that the other respondent and I identified as the strongest was actually primarily directed by the student, with some guidance from the director. From talking with them afterward, it was clear that the student felt supported and guided, but also allowed creative freedom. I love to see that.

The stage management for this show was exemplary. The institution requires its majors and faculty to get training in intimacy and consent work, and that framed how the SM team created safety in the space for the actors. The show was well-called, but that was the least impressive piece of the stage management.

Lastly, the student dramaturgy was named by all of the actors as a crucial part of the process. They repeatedly praised the dramaturg’s presentations as an anchor point for their work.

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