When the lights came up on “The Family Showcase” on Nov. 17, the virtual audience saw two stages fitted next to one another on a Zoom screen. Iragi Nkera ’21 and Saphia Suarez ’21 walked onto separate stages. Without saying a word, they began pacing in zigzags.
They stopped center stage and began to speak simultaneously, heatedly addressing their parents through poetry. Finally they fell silent and sat down.
“This isn’t working,” Suarez said to Nkera.
Suarez and Nkera, who are both theater and performance studies majors, performed alone in two different theaters. Suarez stood in the Whitney Theater, while Nkera stood in a theater classroom on 220 York Street known as The Ballroom. Their production team operated the show remotely from across Yale’s campus, the country and the world.
The show, which was Suarez and Nkera’s senior thesis project, transported the audience to a virtual realm. It recovered many of the elements of physical theater previously eliminated by the pandemic.
In the spring semester of 2020, 23 shows at Yale were preparing for opening night. These included senior projects, smaller extracurricular theater and much larger mainstage productions backed by the Yale Dramatic Association. Students prepared to put on “Legally Blonde,” “Chicago,” “The Clean House,” “En La Casa Azul,” “Self Made” and many others.
Like all theater, these shows were time-consuming, labor-intensive activities that required significant devotion from participants — actors, directors, designers and run crew alike. Many spring 2020 shows had two-hour rehearsals daily. As performance dates drew nearer, rehearsals became 12-hour runs where directors attached each moment’s acting to its associated costumes, props, lights and sound. Technicians, crew and actors would sit with the director in the theater, piecing the show together moment by moment.
For these productions, though, opening night never came. When the pandemic hit Yale in March, every single show set for the undergraduate production season was canceled. The threat of COVID-19 scattered casts, crews and audience members and made live performances impossible.
Theatermakers had to reimagine their craft. In the fall semester of 2020, Yale students were ready to give it a shot. No playbook existed, and only by exploring the possibilities of Zoom theater were students able to reclaim their art.
Every aspect of theater had to adapt. Safety constraints shrank the collaboration and mentorship usually innate to building and lighting the set. Directors began to think more critically about their control over the audience. Actors questioned their acting styles. Productions coped with varying access to resources like stage lights and standard sets.
Theatermakers in each production played with their imaginings of what the medium could be. Each of their shows came up with different answers. Still, each show tried to recover the traditional spirit of theater for a new, curtainless stage.
FACULTY SUPPORT FOR SENIOR PROJECTS
With help from theater and performance studies faculty, senior projects within the major — like “The Family Showcase” — had the most access to resources. This support made these shows the only fall 2020 undergraduate productions that could recreate the traditional image of an actor standing on a set inside a theater.
Suarez and Nkera performed on two nearly identical sets — each had a chair up front in the spotlight and empty picture frames on the wall and boxes on the sides of the scene to sit on. Their sets helped reproduce the ambience an audience member might have encountered pre-pandemic.
“Over the summer I had lots of fears about what [our senior project] would look like and had thought that it would just be a regular staged reading where Saphia and I would read on a Zoom format from our houses,” Nkera said. “I never imagined a time or an opportunity where you could see a set in the camera. Or a space where you’re actually in the theater.”
Production Manager for Yale’s Theater and Performance Studies Program Nathan Roberts DRA ’10 worked to oversee stage technology for senior productions. He was key to making theater spaces available for some shows. When Yale Environmental Health and Safety released their COVID-19 guidelines for theater, Roberts reached out to negotiate with them. He wrote to them, saying: “We saw from the deans’ memo that performance needs to be reimagined to exist entirely in a virtual space. We have some questions.” Roberts noticed that the senior projects scheduled for the fall were either one or two-person shows and saw an opportunity.
Through a series of negotiations that eventually reached Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, Roberts obtained approval for seniors to perform unmasked in Yale facilities with the stipulation that only one person could be in each theater.
Theater and performance studies faculty also provided software and engineering support. In pre-pandemic performances, crews usually cued light changes from within the theater, but because of the one person per venue requirement, this had to change. Roberts set up technology so that student crews could trigger light changes and sound effects from across the country. In another change, a camera streaming video feed to Zoom replaced the seated audience.
COVID-19 safety requirements also consolidated who could do hands-on labor and when. For “The Family Showcase,” Technical Director for the Theater and Performance Studies Program Tom Delgado DRA ’09 built mirror sets in both the Whitney Theater and The Ballroom. He would work during the day and leave an hour before performers entered the theaters for evening rehearsals. Nkera said Delgado would work for a 12-hour block each day with a two-hour break just to ensure light and sound changes were set up.
It was a compromise. “In a normal year, it’s an important part of our teaching to allow students to engage in the normal load-in activities,” Roberts said.
In a normal load-in, the whole cast and crew of a show gather to assist in the arduous process of hanging and focusing lights onto the stage and marking out spaces for set pieces to sit. This year, only a select few individuals did this work to limit potential contamination of the space.
“I wouldn’t be able to do any of the in-person theater without [Roberts and Delgado],” Director of “The Family Showcase” Cleopatra Mavhunga ’23 said.
Through a single camera, Zoom theater can present just one view of the stage, limiting the angles from which audiences can view a production. But typically, in a physical theater, those sitting stage-right see very different things from those sitting stage-left. Roberts and Delgado, in helping students explore new technology, allowed “The Family Showcase” to replicate more of the in-person theater experience. By setting up cameras and video switchers for the show, Roberts and Delgado helped Mavhunga show the audience different angles of the stage.
With three different camera angles, Mavhunga could recreate a sense of space in “The Family Showcase.”
“Getting to play with camera angles is kind of bringing back that feeling of seeing how the show looks different from different angles,” Mavhunga said. “It’s what everyone making the show would have seen [in the rehearsal process].”
The support experienced by the crew of “The Family Showcase” echoed the commitment that Shilarna Stokes ’94, the director of undergraduate Studies for the theater and performance studies program, had previously made to students in the major.
“We were not going to look at senior projects happening this year as a shortchanged year,” said Stokes. “It’s been important throughout to gather a group around every student so it’s never just one person advising you. It’s four, five, six faculty members who are wholly embracing the work that you want to make and using our different skills and aptitudes to move that forward.”
Other shows did not get as much individualized attention. Extracurricular shows, for instance, did not have the option to stage shows inside Yale buildings and lacked access to much of the lights and sound system technologies. For the cast and crew on these shows, they had to find new, creative ways to recreate traditional theater.
One such show was “Marjorie Prime,” a student production about a family that copes with loss by using artificial intelligence that impersonates their deceased loved ones. “Marjorie Prime” was performed from actors’ homes over a Zoom call.
The show-creation process changed the most for the show’s technical designers. Sarah Valeika ’23, director of “Marjorie Prime,” said that “there was set design and lighting design and props design that had to be tailored specifically to each individual actor’s space and circumstances, which takes a lot of work. It’s not usually the responsibility of any designer to create a different design for every actor.”
In traditional performances, technical designers spend their time crafting lights, sets and sound to create the perfect space for actors to tell stories. With a subtle hand, they guide the audience’s attention and emotion throughout the show.
Charlie Foster ’21, who played the role of Walter Prime in “Marjorie Prime,” described designers as “the people who try to breathe life into the show itself rather than the individual performances.” In extracurricular productions with no theaters, many of their tools were lost with Zoom.
For most productions, technical theater survived in a limited form: attaching lighting gels to home lamps, sending duplicate set pieces to actors across the country and playing background music from performers’ phones. Yale resources made cameras and microphones available, but the work was largely limited to what could be made at home.
Kerry Cripe, senior technical director for Yale Undergraduate Production, provided massive support for extracurricular theater in this broadened designer capacity. Cripe whirled across the theater scene, helping students apply for the rights to shows, delivering lighting gels to students without access to their own professional spaces and setting up Zoom’s webinar format to help students present polished productions. Valeika, who worked closely with him, called him “the hero of my life for so many reasons.”
Despite the changes, Cripe thought the traditional role of the technical designers remained intact.
“The primary function of our jobs as technical directors in entertainment is to solve problems,” Cripe said. “Every time we do a show there’s almost always something brand new that we have to figure out the technology for, so in some ways this was no different than in any other show. In this case it just happened to be software.”
THE CHANGES AND THE CONSTANTS
Production teams made shows possible, but actors faced questions around their craft and how it might translate to a digital terrain. One issue arose from the fact that they were now performing to a camera rather than a live audience — a method that suits film better than it does theater. “That’s the question that everyone’s been trying to navigate,” Mavhunga said. When she directed Suarez and Nkera’s senior project, she kept asking herself, “How do we not make this film?”
Actors usually exaggerate their movements and speak extra loudly for theater; for film, actors are more subdued. “For theater what you’re always taught is that you’re acting for the back row,” Foster explained. “So if you do small things, they’ll be lost.”
Zoom theater challenged this tradition. “Since we had a couple close up cameras, I realized the tiny movements that I do are big movements to the people watching,” Nkera said.
Foster believes that these two styles of acting, one for theater and one for film, constitute “two different canons of realism.” These canons, informed by long-standing tradition, dictate the choices an actor can make while remaining believable.
Zoom theater is a newcomer to the scene, and acting traditions for this medium are not yet established. Each production therefore had the liberty to engage in either the theater or film canon of realism.
Mavhunga stressed the challenge of navigating these traditions. “It’s either you end up going all out the way you do for the stage, and you end up looking goofy, or perform for film,” she said. “But now it’s a film project, it’s not theater.”
The change in technology forced creatives to decide how to present their performances. “The way that [“The Family Showcase”] was performed … was absolutely not film,” Mavhunga said. “You were able to suspend your belief for a second that you weren’t just actually watching a film of something, it was, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the theater watching the show.’”
Through their constant labor, students felt like they managed to preserve the essence of theater.
“We were able to keep a team and to feel like we were all a part of the same production,” Mavhunga said. “I was shocked that I had the same anxiety that people are watching something that I directed.”
In all of the different ways that students pursued theater during this pandemic, each producer, director, designer and performer recreated something that had, to them, been the central lifeline of pre-pandemic theater. Though COVID-19 has changed the way theater functions, Stokes has hope for her theater and performance studies students’ projects and all theater’s ability to persevere.
“There is a real truth and something really extraordinary about theater and how resilient it is as an art form,” she said. “It’s just reconnecting with some of those values that are already built into what we do, and saying here’s when we need them more than ever.”