Life during the COVID-19 pandemic has touched every part of life at William Woods, so quite predictably, presenting a theatre production during COVID has been a challenge for the William Woods University Theatre Department. But by all accounts, the department has turned in a flawless performance in adapting to its new role. All actors wear masks and have their area taped off on stage where they can remain socially distanced. Audiences comprised solely of students and faculty at WWU (members of the outside community are not allowed this year), who are socially distanced, applaud their efforts.
It has been a new experience for theatre professors and students as they navigate the stage during the global pandemic.
“The Taming” was the first college production for Whitney Ecker ’24. She was invited to audition by ZOOM during the lockdown, last April.
“Theater is very “touchy-feely, and we had to work around the COVID-19 guidelines,” Ecker said. “I believe theatre is the best thing when it comes to unifying people. Having theatre available to the student population gives people another reason to come out of their rooms while having a safe way to consume human interaction, on the stage. Every show has a lesson that it’s trying to teach people and if you take away theatre that lesson is lost.”
Selecting plays and utilizing readers’ theater
The plays this year have been a good eclectic mix of children’s theater, drama and the classics that are able to be presented during the pandemic.
“The play selection was influenced by simplicity,” said Joe Potter, Professor of Theatre. “As far as the decision-making process, it was easy with the two directors choosing things we wanted to do, working with each other and working with the school’s protocols to make it happen. So far, we have done OK making it happen.”
The secret to the success is readers’ theatre, which is a mix between 1) sitting with a script in hand and reading it to the audience out loud dramatically and 2) hearing the characters while the audience does not see them fully in action in their costumes.
“Readers’ theatre has worked well for us and gives us a chance to show students the value of the written word and why these words were chosen by the play wright for a character to say at any given moment.” Potter said. “The actors have done a great job as half their face is covered with a mask. It has created a challenge that we have met, and I am proud of our students because of that. When you start reading student reviews and they talk about an actor/actress made me cry in that one scene and they realize they don’t have to be close to each other in the moment. It creates the idea that less is more, and we do not need all the fancy stuff to tell the story.”
Overcoming pandemic realities
The first play of the season was “An Enemy of the People,” directed by Melissa Alpers-Springer, Assistant Professor of Communication and Theatre. Her goal was to keep every actor six feet apart, which required different patterns of movement than usual. Another challenge Alpers-Springer faced was with actors wearing masks, which caused muffled voices and covered up facial expressions. The department purchased body mics to help the audience hear the characters and actors had to exaggerate their gestures and physical expressions to help communicate with the audience. Once they got to performances, the house manager and ushers worked with Alpers-Springer to figure out how best to seat and dismiss the audience.
By the time the next show came along (The Night Witches, also directed by Alpers-Springer), the team had worked out the kinks, with the second play having the addition of lighting changes.
“I found myself feeling emotional during the first performance when I saw how much the lights added to the expression of the meaning of the play,” said Alpers-Springer.
One of the benefits of storytelling for Alpers-Springer is that it allows people to enter the experiences of someone else, often someone who is very different and who takes actions we would never take.
“Being able to feel empathy for someone in a story allows us to develop that emotion and apply it to our lives,” she said. “The deep challenges and devastating effects of the pandemic requires us to be empathetic with those around us who are experiencing the same things we are. Theatre also gives us a break from those challenges by allowing us to escape those challenges for a little while and be transported somewhere else.”
One of the dirtiest things there is in the world according to Potter’s grandfather-in-law is paper money, and one must think about how many places money goes in any given month or year. From this, the theatre department decided to eliminate paper and money out of the situation for convenience. General admission tickets for students and faculty, and programs, are now available online. These efforts save the department money and makes each play COVID-19 compliant.
“I was a little suspect about going paperless, and once we did it, it has been very well-received.” Potter said. “The less we have to handle and pass around to each other the better off we are until everyone gets vaccinated. That is why we went paperless.”
Potter would like to thank his co-worker Melissa Alpers-Springer, the university administration and the students who work hard backstage and on stage to bring these plays to the student body.
“When we get the green light, we have managed to do a good job of taking care of each other,” Potter said. “We have banded and worked together and helped each other to get through the pandemic. That is the kind of thing a leader can bust their buttons about. I certainly have. I am proud of how we approached this year and how we are working through this.”
The theatre has missed having members of the community present this year and cannot wait to have them back in the audience post-COVID-19. But through working within the guidelines to adapt their practices, the result has been having a successful play season where student audience members get the chance to safely escape their lives into a fantasy world for a few hours.
Because after all, pandemic or not, the show must go on!