Intimacy/Isolation: Our Year of Virtual College
by Wesley Ahn
March 9, 2020 was the day of my first and only rehearsal for a springtime choreoplay in the black box theatre at Drew University. I was one day back from Spring Break. I had gotten off book over break, so I was eager. Nine of us sat, legs crossed, in a circle on the floor. Our director assigned rehearsal dates to learn blocking for different scenes. We penciled in our days on and days off, up through our April 17 and 18 performance dates. But we never got past March 9.
The following day we received an email cancelling classes and gatherings including our rehearsals and performances, for the foreseeable future. Our production, like other college productions in process when universities across the United States moved to virtual instruction, was not prepared to continue with anything but an in-person show. Classes straightaway launched into the Zoom application on the morning of March 9. But we had not yet seen the parallel precedent for virtual theatre. So, the show was cancelled.
This past school year, 2020-2021, required undergraduate theatre programs to find creative solutions to replace in-person shows with socially distanced alternatives. I asked three friends how they and their college theatre departments continued to produce theatre for a remote audience.
Jacqueline Acunto at Swarthmore College was part of a “devised show called Theater of All Possibilities.” Jacqueline, an actor in the show who rehearsed and performed inside of Zoom meetings, shared that one obstacle the format presented “was the limited space to act and react in.” She said the cast “needed to focus on body language and especially facial expressions which was initially challenging because, as [stage] actors, we’re not used to the audience being THAT close to our faces.” In reaction to the pandemic changes, Theater of All Possibilities was “about a theatre cult meeting over Zoom.” Promotional material for the show invited audiences to attend the “cult’s” free Theater of All Possibilities “seminar.” Jacqueline told me that the cast “addressed the audience as if they were at one of the cult’s Zoom recruiting events,” so that “any natural Zoom awkwardness and technical issues…just fit naturally—and even contributed to the comedy of the show.”
Across the country at the University of Southern California, Peren Yesilyurt, acting in a devised multimedia theatre project by Paula L. Cizmar named The Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles similarly expressed that “one of the biggest obstacles was not being in the same room as your ensemble, not just in terms of energy and chemistry, but in terms of the tech.” Peren said, “For Sacrifice Zone, we had to all hang green screens, frame ourselves in the same way, and light ourselves to look like we [were] in the same space.” With this in mind, she and the fully student run theatre company she serves as secretary for, the Aeneid Theatre Company, “worked to create art that was beyond the Zoom application, and thus, we created works we never thought we would. For example, we first created an audio-drama/sound walk called Brick by Brick [available on Spotify], which is a compilation of the untold/unknown stories and histories of some of the buildings on USC’s campus…Then we created a film about the mental health of students during the pandemic, and, finally, released, weekly, [remotely-filmed] Shakespeare monologues on our Instagram.”
Back in New England, as a part of Radio Dramas at Williams College, Raphael Rakosi-Schmidt directed and devised a series of pre-recorded plays taken out of 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks and streamed them using Zoom. Raphael said of the play’s form: “[I] had my actors use their voices to create most of the music as well as all of the sound effects, background noises, and transitions.” He also echoed the others, saying “that trying to develop bonds between cast members or even just a general group rapport was fairly difficult over Zoom. He found that “in the end, it was really cool to see what they were able to make.” The Radio Dramas event page reads, “We haven’t let the virus keep us from making exciting art!” And the mass adaptation of college theatre to virtual performance that has taken place in the last year makes me inclined to believe that is true. A month before Radio Dramas streamed in November 2020, Raphael stage managed a live Zoom reading of BFE by Julia Cho. And a radio play called Chamber Music by Arthur Kopit opened within a week of Williams’ Radio Dramas, here at Drew University. What might have read as copy-cat programming in any other season looked instead to me like an onslaught of brave theatre made in spite of discouraging circumstances.
When I asked Peren what encouraged her about putting up a show this year, she said it was that feeling of “when everyone working on a production feels a weight lifted from their shoulders, [knowing] that we have done everything we can, and what we have created can live and breathe on its own.”
I think the collaborative script writing process of Theater of All Possibilities illustrates this same journey and destination because Jacqueline said the script was mostly written in the span of one “incredibly encouraging … ‘Google Doc improvisation’ during [their] four-week process of devising, rehearsing, and polishing a Zoom play.” She told me that “[after] engaging in a full cast Zoom improvisation, we decided to redo the same process—this time, writing on a Google Doc as our characters, with our Zoom cameras off and mics muted. We weren’t sure if it would actually be productive, but, surprisingly, the cast got in SUCH a great flow where we fully created the script to our show.” Jacqueline said this showed her “there are other methods of acting and theatre creation…in which being in-person, though desired, isn’t a necessity.”
Since that first fall season of programming in pandemic, college productions have continued to adapt to both live and pre-recorded performances that can be made accessible to audiences virtually. In March 2021, I watched An Evening of One Act Plays performed live by Rutgers Theater Company. Their actors were on-stage in their theatre while I was on the livestream hosted by the Rutgers Theater Company’s YouTube Channel. I logged into three YouTube accounts to leave multiple likes. Later that month, I would see the pre-recorded performance of Monstress by remote actors from Drew University complete with a puppetry sequence and a navigable digital art gallery.
Now, two fall seasons later, I have had the privilege of returning to that black box theatre at Drew, as an audience member, for the in-person performances of three productions this past October and another three productions in November. As a dramaturg for a dance show called Reacclimatize, I have been able to collaborate with choreographers and dancers in rehearsals as well as to create their pieces’ lobby displays. I have been an actor for an in-person showcase by my playwriting class where I have also had my own work performed. The members of these shows’ casts, crews, and audiences share the same sentiment as we get the opportunity to return to in-person theatre, and that sentiment is gratitude. Even now when our ability to continue to share theatre in-person cannot be assured, the laptop stationed in the corner for virtual viewers reminds us that theatre prevails.
Wesley Ahn (he/him/his) was the Artistic and Literary Intern at PlayCo for the summer of 2021. He is a writer, actor, and a student at Drew University, where he is pursuing dramaturgy. He is also a member of an improv troupe, an a capella group, student government, and has been certified to teach yoga.
Title illustration by Eva Ahn.