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Q&A with AQ: Getting creative with live theatre in a pandemic

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Scott Harman, visiting assistant professor of theatre, talked about what it has been like to keep the stage lights on during a pandemic. Unlike many other programs, Aquinas College Theatre was able to produce its full regular season despite the challenges of the past year. Using green screens, video editing and their own ingenuity, Aquinas students, faculty and staff have been able to maintain as much of the experience of live theatre as possible.

Aquinas College Theatre’s last production of the season, “Now. Here. This. (Flexible Version)” will be available virtually for audiences from April 21-25. Tickets are $5 for single viewer admission and $15 for group viewer admission. Purchase tickets from the AQ Box Office at (616) 456-6656 or at https://circletheatre.org/aquinas/. Learn more about Aquinas College Theatre at http://aquinas.edu/theatre

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How are AQ Theatre students handling the transition to virtual performances? 

SH: Theatre is inherently about getting people together into a space. We’ve all mourned that feeling and experience. Once we got through the mourning, the time came to do what theatre artists always do; make the best art we can within the situation we face. Our students have adapted their usual theatrical acting skills to a variety of other media -- voiceover, film, green screen and live on-camera acting. That’s impressive, and shows just how indomitable our theatre students are.

Q: Have virtual performances affected audience attendance?

SH: Our attendance started out much lower than usual, but has grown with each production. No one has known what to expect of pandemic theatre, and we've had to earn the trust of our audiences. Slowly but surely, people are trusting that we can provide access to excellent art even with our limitations. It’s also been great to extend access to our shows to people who wouldn’t normally be able to travel to Aquinas for a live show. Family members of the cast who might not come to Grand Rapids still get to see our work.

Q: What were the biggest challenges the theatre students and faculty had to overcome with this new way of performing?

SH: The challenges don’t stop. We are in many cases using technology that isn’t designed for what we are doing. We’ve done two shows on Zoom -- a play that we wrote called “One of Our Own” and a monologue play for women titled “Sez She.” Both plays were structurally able to work well on Zoom -- one of them was written for the medium, after all -- but that was only the beginning of our challenges. For example, any conversation on Zoom has just a little bit of lag. You have to stop and think through how to adapt to the medium so that the audience gets the experience we’re going for, then once you figure that out, you have to figure out how to get music to play, and then you have to sort out the right lighting to use with green screens. Everything that we have taken for granted has to be rethought.

Q: Were you forced to abandon any previously planned plays because the challenges were just too much?

SH: I'm really proud to be able to say no. Last year, we were in the home stretch with our last show of the year, “Antigone” by Jean Anouilh, when the pandemic started. The actors were ready, the set was ready, the costumes were ready, and then -- nothing. Instead of abandoning the project entirely, the director and our crew reimagined the show as an audio drama, so we just brought the cast right back in the fall, hired a sound designer and engineer, and taught the cast some voiceover technique on the fly so that we could put together a top-notch audio drama and fulfill the promise we’d made the previous year. 

Q: You mentioned filming over time to create your virtual performances. How has that worked out?

SH: We just finished the process of filming our last show of the year, a musical titled “Now. Here. This.” We knew we wanted to do a musical, but the lag problems that Zoom presents meant that there was just no way to do a live show that way. What we did instead was rehearse it in person with safety precautions, then filmed each actor's performance separately in front of a massive green screen. Our music director, audio, scenic and video designers then composited that video together so that the audience sees these people acting unmasked together, even though they weren’t in the same room together. It takes a lot of logistical thinking, and the actors have to be able to look at a stick painted green as if it's their acting partner and friend. 

Q: How do you still infuse the feeling of live performance into your virtual shows? 

SH: For our two Zoom shows, it was important to me that we performed live, even if virtually. I don't want theatre to ever be overly polished; it's the little human foibles and new discoveries that the actor has in the middle of performing that make theatre different from other art forms. The energy the actors bring to a show like that matters, and we keep it whenever we can. We also allowed our audiences to use the chat function on Zoom to cheer the actors on, which was a nice way to get a taste of the performer-audience feedback that is so crucial to live theatre. For “Now. Here. This.,” I think just the sight of people performing together onstage -- even if it takes a little movie magic to get there -- is thrilling. It's a sight we haven't been able to offer in a year, and I hope our audiences get the same charge out of it that I do. 

Q: What motivated you to find creative solutions when so many other institutions decided to postpone or cancel their shows?

SH: AQ theatre is an academic program, and our students need to keep studying and training for the theatre world of today and tomorrow. Theatre at every level is about making the best out of what you have and letting your limitations inspire you instead of holding you back. What we’ve done is to keep to that fundamental mission in an extreme situation. We are training students to keep making art that matters, even when everything seems lost. That's our job as artists in the world.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us? 

SH: We are planning for a return to more traditional fare next year, but I'm also really looking forward to discovering how the lessons of this year change the art and the business moving forward. We'll keep learning, keep providing for our audiences and keep making art that matters.