Performing Arts in the Time of COVID

January 6th, 2021 - 9:09am

Since mid-March of this year, the performing arts industry worldwide has been hit hard by the pandemic, cancelling performances and dismantling production companies.

Innovative instructors at College of Marin’s (COM) Performing Arts Department in Music, Dance, and Drama have found ways to artfully maneuver around these limitations. They continue to teach their students remotely, while finding unique and creative ways for their students to gain experience performing.  


Meeting the Moment

Let’s pick up where we last left off with COM Drama Program Chair and Director, Dr. Lisa Morse, and Department Set Designer, Ron Krempetz, nearing the completion of the acting portion of their upcoming production, Arden of Faversham Ranch

In the midst of a pandemic, Morse, Krempetz, and their production team discovered a trendsetting way to put on a new theatrical show in a way that keeps everyone safe. A friend of the department introduced them to software that could combine images in real time of their students acting remotely and separately with a camera in front of a green screen to make it look like they were acting together.

The process was painstakingly detailed and collectively labor-intensive for everyone involved. Performers gained experience acting in front of a green screen, setting up their own lighting, audio, and technical equipment, as well as learning to act without seeing the person they were in the scene with. Everyone involved had to ensure they had full access to their house’s internet during rehearsals in order to capture the work properly and without a glitch. Every step an actor took was documented, each take was cataloged, continuity of hair styles, clothing, makeup, props, camera angles, time of day, and more was meticulously registered for each and every take.

But why? Why go through all of this during a time when it would be quite understandable to skip a year of producing anything? While actors would miss out on an opportunity to perform for an audience, they could at least perform for their class through Zoom, working on character arc and development. What makes it so important to keep theatre going now during a COVID-induced shelter-in-place?

In fact, even with documented research linking performing arts courses with increased academic success and social and emotional well-being1, many colleges and universities around the country are considering dropping their performing arts programs because of budget shortages from declining enrollment during this pandemic. This was an issue even before COVID-19 which was why Morse always prioritized attending COM Board Meetings and events.

“I like the board members to know who we are and what we’re doing,” states Morse. “I think a lot of times performing arts can be seen as the thing that’s least valuable or easiest to cut. Making people aware of the type of work we’re doing and how it impacts our students and community is very important. The impact is on how it affects people, how it reaches people, it gets them out of a funk – sometimes it’s educational, sometimes it’s entertainment, sometimes it’s challenging.”

Morse and her department have created ties with the community and community groups to ensure as many as possible can experience theatre and performing arts. Yearly, they partner with organizations, such as the Marin Foster Care Association and the Battered Women’s Shelter. They work with local schools, like Kent Middle School, that brings all five-hundred students each year to a free performance put on just for them. It was an experience like this that led Morse to where she is now.

“I didn’t see a live theatre performance until my senior in high school,” recalls Morse. “I grew up in the inner city. My family received public assistance and we lived month to month like most did. We didn’t have the kind of money to spend on seeing shows or concerts; that was not part of our life. My AP English teacher took us to see Bus Stop at Trinity Rep. That was the first play I ever saw, and that was the end of it for me. I felt I had found my home and I didn’t want to leave the theater. I thought, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ I applied for colleges right then and there.”

Before this moment, she was planning to follow her father’s footsteps and join the Navy after high school, as she hated school and couldn’t imagine going to college. “I was called a Decca kid in high school because my grades were D, C, C, A – and the A, of course, was in chorus. I had no interest in school, partly because I hadn’t found what I loved.”

But once she saw that play, “it changed my life completely,” Morse affirms. “I went to college and I got my B.A., then my masters and my doctoral degree. I just never stopped.”

She wants to ensure students are given the same experience she had, but at a younger age so they can go even further than she could. “Imagine going off to college and becoming a drama major with having only seen one play,” marvels Morse. “The world was completely new to me, I had no idea what playwrights were, I didn’t know what musical theatre was, I knew nothing! I thought, ‘if I do one thing in my life, it will be to change that trajectory for the next generation. To help someone see theatre for the first time. So, for me it is really important to do theatre that meets the moment.”

Morse adds, “I think, in a way, Faversham Ranch is kind of the perfect thing we need right now. It’s like a melodrama and a soap opera and seems perfectly suited for the environment we’re in with this kind of hyper-real, digital world. It really meets the moment.”

“The amazing thing to me,” reflects Krempetz, “is that theater people around the world are putting productions together for free, asking for donations, saying ‘this is temporary, but we have to exercise our creative juices.’”

Krempetz, who has been teaching many of COM’s technical theatre courses since 1970, researched what happened to theatre companies during other pandemics. He found that it wasn’t just the actors who needed to express themselves, but there was also an audience that craved experiencing stories as a collective, too. “I was reading about the plague during Shakespeare’s time and how people couldn’t gather. As soon as the plague lifted and allowed the theaters open, they started immediately. Theatres sold out. They had some of the best ticket sales they ever had in their lives. People were hungry for this, and they will be again.”

Krempetz points out that much of what was first out there wasn’t very good, but it is now getting better. “We were watching productions on Zoom that were just thrown together. But the reality was they were doing it, and I cannot fault them for that because they were making an attempt. Now, companies are adding a great deal of production value to enhance the Zoom experience for a whole new field of theatre.”

The play is now in post-production with a whole new set of challenges to navigate. In addition to learning another new vocabulary around editing and sound design, they need to add scene transition shots which help set the tone of a scene and build momentum for the story.

Krempetz and Morse estimate they lost about a month during post-production trying to get the equipment and software connected among the designers and editors so they and their equipment could work collaboratively.

“There is nothing that’s been easy,” Morse admits. “Yet the process has been joyous. I’ve had the joy of working with incredibly talented and incredibly smart, creative people that can problem solve and can do it with a sense of ease and care about the project. They’re all excited about it. They are artistic and creative. They are just wonderful.”

Morse, Krempetz and their post-production team are nearing completion of the play. And both acknowledge there are times when the technology shows itself, when the eyeline isn’t exactly right or someone is too far back. Yet, they are both impressed with how often they can go for long stretches and be taken away in the story.

Krempetz is excited about how it looks. “It looks like they are on that location, it’s that good. There are moments when things look obviously in a Zoom format. But a lot of the scenes, especially those with a lot of depth in the scenes, I was very impressed with the quality of the imagery and sound. It’s amazing! I’m jacked about it. I’m really happy.”

Morse agrees, “what happens in those moments that make it so magical is that we forget they are all in their own room in front of a green screen and a camera. The fact that it feels like they are together, when someone hands something to someone else, it feels like they are together. It’s just astounding that that was possible and that you can forget they are in separate spaces. You think, wow, that’s incredible!”

Krempetz and Morse would like to have an opening night party when it finally gets released in the beginning of the new year. Morse wants to have a showing where the students, technicians, alums, colleagues, Zoom Theatre, and everyone who helped them create this cutting-edge, unprecedented video recording of a show watch it together. A link will then be made available to the public after that.

For their next production, they plan to use the same technology so they can complete their learning curve and have actors continue developing their screen work. They also want to try some new things within the format, such as applying filters to the foreground to give scenes more depth. As Krempetz says, ‘you’re only as good as your last show,’ and they are ecstatic knowing they have their next ready to start.

Both Morse and Krempetz acknowledge this production would not have been possible without the creative vision and practical know-how of Ernie Ernstrom; the technical skills of designers Walter Holden, Pamela Johnson, Margie Finney, Jeffrey Brown, Noah Brown, Billie Cox, David White, Eric White; administrative support of Kim Foulger; Stage Managers Jack Kelly and Michael Kessell; and Combat Director Richard Squeri. It took a village to make this happen!

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1 A couple studies on the increase of academic success and social and emotional well-being can be found in these two recent studies from Brookings Institution and American Institutes for Research, among many others.