On rehearsal nights, Emma Swartz doesn’t leave her living room.
With her roommate’s support and approval, Swartz has “monopolized” the space for a few hours each day to prepare for a play in her final year as a University of Montana senior, studying for a bachelor’s degree in acting.
She sits at a desk with a computer, under a ring light with the props she needs at hand — weapons and extra costume materials — to play her characters, Farrah, a fairy, or Evil Gabby, a succubi, in “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” a role-playing game-themed comedic play adapted for Zoom-style teleconferencing by its author, Qui Nguyen.
When the play opens next week, the audience won’t see Swartz’s home decor. Instead of creating a physical set, the play’s student designer, Jacquelyn Simonis, shot images like a scenic meadow for a virtual backdrop that will be projected on a green screen.
During the rehearsal, Swartz logs on with her 10 fellow cast members and director Jadd Davis, an MFA candidate in direction. Davis, too, is at his home working on a laptop.
Davis, a non-traditional student who worked professionally in theater for years before returning to school, said the times he’s enjoyed his work the most are when he’s been forced to “think as creatively and as rapidly as possible, so this is definitely playing into that proclivity.”
He compared the myriad limitations to a form like a haiku — work artistically within the boundaries while still creating something.
“Come hell or high water, we’re going to have a positive experience with this,” he said.
Last March, the School of Theatre and Dance cut short a run of “Spring Awakening,” a musical, and campus was closed for the remainder of the semester. As fall approached, the faculty made plans for classes and productions and changed them repeatedly, and class would resume for the school’s estimated 170 majors in theater, musical theater and dance. Half of those are musical theater, a relatively new major that has attracted quick growth, said Michael Monsos, the director of the school, yet the program remains in a size that they’re comfortable with.
After weighing options and studying suggested practices from around the world, the program came up with a plan for online productions and mixed indoor and outdoor classes.
Plays won't happen on the stages on campus, even for limited capacity audiences. Instead, the school has planned three remotely produced shows that will be recorded and streamed online.
Monsos said he worked with a national industry group developing guidelines over the summer, and saw that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for returning to performance during the pandemic.
“We felt that it was best to try to challenge ourselves to be as safe as we could. We want to make sure all the students and faculty and staff are in good health, and it just didn’t seem like it was that important for us to create a way to perform live on stage and do it really safely,” Monsos said.
Some college theater programs in other parts of the country have postponed their seasons. In the world of professional theater, companies have the option of quarantining a cast and crew to produce a show.
That’s impossible for students, who have other classes and living situations. Even if they attempted to produce a live show, if a single member of a production fell ill, they would have to shut down, he said.
“We’d rather just provide acting and performance opportunities for the dance and theater students in a way that was safe,” he said.
In the end, a planned musical, “She Loves Me,” was postponed until next academic year when it can go on with all the bells and whistles it calls for. “Theory of Relativity,” which takes the form of a song cycle that translates to an online format, will take its place. “Six Degrees of Separation,” a play about a loosely-connected group of people, also lends itself to physically isolated performances. “She Kills Monsters,” a popular college show, was conveniently adapted by Nguyen.
In contrast to prior years, they have all three in rehearsal at the same time, aiming to be complete before mid-November.
While livestreaming has become the assumed medium for online shows, in the case of theater, it’s cost-prohibitive to hire a multi-camera crew. It would also violate one of the school’s ground rules: Students can’t be in the same space working without masks.
Instead, these shows will be recorded and lightly edited to retain the spirit of a theatrical performance.
“We’re asking ourselves, what is the difference between a remote production of a dramatic text and a film or a TV show?” said John DeBoer, a theater professor and interim dean of the College of the Arts and Media.
For Davis’ show, they might use the familiar Zoom grid view, or focus on a single performer as needed, but DeBoer said the directors have freedom to experiment.
The school is still looking at what the spring line-up will be. In some cases, shows in which actors wear masks on-stage might be a distraction as we grow accustomed to them as clothing in everyday life.
Masks and aerosols are a complicating factor for teaching as well. Some of the basic requirements of the artform — deep breathing, projection and expressive speaking, etc. — could spread the virus through the air.
The school had to consider circulation in their spaces, time limitations, smaller capacity, extra breaks, and social distancing, said Bernadette Sweeney, a professor and the head of performance and practice.
Classes have been held online, outdoors, and in some cases, indoors in spaces such as the Montana and Masquer theaters with masks and social distancing. Studio spaces equipped with air purifiers can be used in some cases.
For “Theory of Relativity,” a small number of cast members wearing singers’ masks can work for short periods of time in one of the theaters and then move to a different space.
It’s required fast changes in tack at times. In late August, a faculty member tested positive for COVID-19, which triggered contact tracing (they were exposed off-campus) and the school facilities needed to be cleaned. In September, smoke made outdoors sessions impossible for a week.
Some classes are divided into halves and alternate in-person sessions with Zoom lectures and discussions.
“The downside of that is that you don’t see the students as often, but the upside is that you can do closer, more concentrated work with the students you are working with,” Sweeney said. She hopes that attention might off-set the times that they’re working online.
Swartz is taking an advanced acting class, with meetings held under a large tent outside the Gilkey Center on campus. There’s only six students, all wearing masks. While she’s been impressed with the improving quality of Zoom offerings, these are important too.
“I’m really grateful that it’s one of the classes I get to have in person, while there are limitations as far as being socially distant and wearing masks, you just really can’t mimic that creative space that happens when you all come together,” she said.
For online sessions, she might perform a scene over Zoom for her classmates, all on mute, and then get feedback.
“We have really had to adjust on our feet and who knows when all this is going to end, or if it’s going to happen again in 20 years,” she said. “So while it has been happening, it’s been important to fight through these challenges and find creative solutions to them because this very well could be a new part of our world moving forward.”
In one of Sweeney’s advanced studio acting classes for graduate students, she developed alternatives that can work online. In one project, the students devise an archetypal movement, such as throwing a stone or shooting a bow, through a series of nine actions, much like miming, she said. They typically spend significant time working through them. Now, they’ve memorized long monologues and are generating accompanying movements while shooting video and drawings.
She said her students have been “patient with this constantly shifting landscape of the kind of compromises to be able to do the work that is so intrinsic to the training of performance,” and all seem “happy to be working in any capacity right now.”
In “She Kills Monsters,” the protagonist, Agnes, spent her childhood resentful of her geeky younger sister. A year after losing her sibling in a car crash, Agnes discovers her homemade Dungeons & Dragons module, and sets out to learn more about her, and come to grips with her death, by exploring it, Davis said.
“It is still innately theatrical,” Davis said, driven by dialogue.
“We’re not really approaching the performance of it any different than we would a stage play, we’re just in a different sort of set,” he said.
He’s been working with the cast on acting and staging within the confines of a screen — they’ve been playing with the now-familiar conventions of Zoom in a way that the audience will have fun with. Since it’s a comedy, they can lean into the format rather than hide from it.
There weren’t many Zoom plays to study for reference, but YouTube series like “Stuntmen in Quarantine” supplied inspiration and ideas for combat sequences in the play.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like. Just stuntmen doing stunts by themselves that look like they’re transferring energy from location to location,” he said. One will throw a punch off-screen, and then next, in a different location, will react.
Swartz said they’ve experimented with moving in close to the webcam and pulling farther back. Instead of projecting to the crowd, she said they’re more focused on projecting to a small camera, particularly since she can see herself on screen in real time and make mental notes for later adjustments.
Those notes are what they need to rely on, since the final performance won’t have an audience reaction.
“It’s really pushed us to hone in our acting skills and our craft, because you don’t get that gauge of whether or not the joke landed or the moment landed, you have to rely on yourself and make sure that your acting is solid,” she said.
Monsos said they don’t expect to generate as much revenue this semester as they would from in-person productions, although they are saving money on overhead such as full sets and as many costumes.
“We’re running this season thinking, ‘Let’s find out how things work in this new format and continue to find ways for our students to practice their craft, learn their craft and become better educated in how to do this,” he said.
An open question is the audience turn-out, which is now much wider than Missoula. They can reach anyone anywhere, potentially including alumni. And, Davis added, family members.
“We can guilt our parents across the country into watching the production,” he said. He wonders what a wider base and these experiments could mean for the future of the artform. As others have pointed out, theater has been trying to die for two thousand years and hasn’t found a way yet.
While the potential revenue from streamed shows is uncertain, he believes events like theater fulfill a “persistent human need” we have to be “in the same place experiencing the same thing with people in real time.”
While it’s been challenging and different for Swartz, she experiences moments when they get lost in their work.
“Even though we have a barrier of a screen, there are still times when we’re sitting in rehearsal, and we’re talking and we’re chatting and working through stuff, and you kind of forget that you’re sitting alone in your apartment talking to a screen,” she said.
She enjoys working with the cast and the director, and seeing different ways that people are coping and creating.
“As always, arts will persist,” she said.