Even during a pandemic, the show must go on

Musical theatre students Zye Reid and Scarlett Diaz, photographed in the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre on the Coral Gables Campus. Photo: Emmalyse Brownstein/University of Miami
By Emmalyse Brownstein

Musical theatre students Zye Reid and Scarlett Diaz, photographed in the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre on the Coral Gables Campus. Photo: Emmalyse Brownstein/University of Miami

Even during a pandemic, the show must go on

By Emmalyse Brownstein
Nearly a full year after the coronavirus forced curtains to close in theaters around the world, students and faculty members in the Department of Theatre Arts are working to stage a new performance—virtually.

Eleven students in the University of Miami’s musical theatre program began filling the room one by one as director Burton Tedesco spoke to his stage manager about visual spacing and audio effects. Some actors sat down in anticipation, while others paced and stretched their limbs in warm-up.

Tedesco fiddled with a speaker and shuffled his playlist, which first landed on “7 Years.” Then the group began experimenting with a movement exercise that was to be used in the opening scene of their upcoming show, “Every(one).”

Except they weren’t together at all. The cast members were in their own bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens with laptops and webcams strategically propped up. This rehearsal room was virtual.

Live performance is built on the premise of large gatherings, which has made the theater industry among the hardest hit during the coronavirus pandemic. According to Forbes, Broadway annually contributes $14.7 billion to New York City’s economy. 

With it nearing a full year in shutdown and no certain open date in sight, the impact economically and artistically is immeasurable. Theatre students at the University of Miami have had to adjust the way they look at not only their future careers, but their current curriculum. So, they’re turning to a new forum: virtual theater. 

When University students were sent home and into remote classrooms last March, the theatre arts department had to “get creative,” as Tedesco, a movement and stage combat assistant professor, put it. On top of the disappointment in spring productions getting cancelled (for which rehearsals had already begun) was the challenge in making acting, singing, and dancing classes work remotely.

How do you connect with your scene partner when the only thing linking you is a webcam and computer screen? How do you learn a ballet pas de deux in the confines of your childhood bedroom?

“There’s a difference between taking a stage combat class and taking algebra,” said Jennifer Burke, professor and chair for theatre arts. “It’s not only about lines, but about physical relationship and distance and the use of props and staging and stage movement.”

The outcomes included using virtual backgrounds as scenery and even timed-prop handoffs from screen to screen. 

“As theater makers, the faculty and staff are resourceful, adaptive, and accustomed to working collaboratively; in the last year these skills have been called on time and time again,” said Burke. “I'm very proud of the team's determination to navigate around major challenges and provide meaningful and innovative training and performance opportunities to the students.” 

Although Burke said she can’t wait for the day theaters can open up again, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom.

“I think a happy outcome from these adaptations is that some elements I will maintain in a post-COVID world,” said Burke.

Burke said some of the technological tools add to progress in the classroom, like when a student sends a self-taped video of themselves practicing a monologue. 

“I can give them notes and they can apply them for next class, so that the momentum of work can even increase,” Burke stated.

In addition to classes, performances have been rehearsed and recorded using Zoom.

“Every(one),” is one example. Rehearsals began last fall and finished recording in mid- February. “Every(one)” is a devised piece, meaning it is created entirely by the people involved. It will be about 75 minutes long, according to Tedesco, and feature 11 “segments”—purposefully different than “scenes”—of everything from movement with prerecorded voice-overs and self-written monologues.

The reasons for producing this type of work instead of a traditional play are both logistical and artistic. Tedesco said that one side effect of the sudden virtual shift has been the difficulty in securing rights to shows, which are meant for the stage and usually prohibit any type of recordings for copyright purposes—it’s a problem the industry wasn’t ready for.

“Part of the idea behind projects like ‘Every(one)’ is that it gives us an opportunity to not have to worry about those things and to have a different experience and do our own thing,” said Tedesco. “We have been forced to be more creative.”

For musical theatre students like Zye Reid, this is truly the case. Reid, a senior, said he has embraced this new, very virtual world.

“We all miss live theater, but I don’t feel defeated,” he said. “It [virtual theater] is not filling the hole that exists, but it’s good as its own thing.”

Last fall, he hatched an idea to start a virtual theater company of his own with a fellow student. EBO Theatre (an acronym for “embrace being original”) debuted its first production, “Random World,” in December. Through connections, friends, and friends of friends, Reid co-directed and produced the project, which involved both elements of live theater and video editing. He said he plans on doing a cabaret as EBO’s next project this summer. 

For seniors like Reid, graduating during a global pandemic can seem daunting. In April of each year, the senior class of musical theatre students typically spend a week in New York City putting on their “Senior Showcase” for talent agents. 

It’s a moment most of the theatre students define as the culmination of their four years of acting, singing, and dance training. Reid won’t get to experience it. But he said the faculty members and students, pending University approval, are planning on recording scenes, songs, and other work to send out. 

“We’re aiming to use the Ring Theatre or an off-campus site to record in person,” Reid said. 

Despite what he and his senior classmates are missing out on, Reid chooses to maintain a positive outlook. “I’ve been scared of graduating since day one anyway, because nothing in this field is ever guaranteed. COVID honestly hasn’t changed that,” Reid said. “Some theatre programs [at other universities] are just shut down. It’s not ideal, but we’re still lucky we get to do stuff.”

Scarlett Diaz, a sophomore musical theatre major and actor in “Every(one),” said she sees the world of theater coming back “with a vengeance” because of how widely it’s missed.

“I used to go see a Broadway show on the weekends,” said Diaz, who hails from New Jersey. “Let’s be real, it doesn’t work over a Zoom platform the way you want it to. Even not being able to be an audience member sucks.”

But, she said, the industry is undoubtedly changed forever. 

“The first rounds of auditions will be live or prerecorded video, because why would theaters do live cattle calls when they can do it over Zoom?” she said. “Before the pandemic, it was already heading in that direction.” 

Doing things over video isn’t bad, Diaz said. Just different. For example, she noted, she has been able to take voice lessons from coaches across the country via Zoom, and her virtual acting classes last spring transformed from traditional stage acting to more of an “acting-for-the-camera” style.

“In a lot of ways, it’s great for musical theatre kids because it teaches you how to dial it down and be natural,” said Diaz. “Being a good actor means you’re expected to learn to adapt and thrive. Curveballs get thrown at you in the industry. Right now, people are experiencing the biggest curveball ever.” 

Among all the lessons from this year, Diaz said, the most important is gratitude.

“The big shift for me and my classmates is finding joy and inspiration in ways we don’t expect,” she said. “I’ve never done a devised piece like Burton’s. But when you’re faced with a global pandemic, why wouldn’t I give my absolute all?” she asked. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in this past year, it’s that you can’t take any of this for granted—not a single moment on stage. It’s made things feel higher stakes and for the better.” 

The recording of “Every(one)” will likely be published on the theatre arts website, said Tedesco, but a release date has not been set. Other upcoming productions include “We the People,” another devised piece, and “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” a tribute to the late Broadway lyricist and composer and University alumnus Jerry Herman, who died in December 2019.

Visit theatre arts for more information.