Editor’s note: This story was written by Morgan Prokosch.
Putting on a play during the COVID-19 pandemic takes lots of creativity and flexibility, said the directors of the fall 2020 Saint Mary’s theater productions.
Both Jimmy Bickerstaff, director of the recent production “The Glass Menagerie,” and Walter Elder, director of the upcoming production “Measure for Measure,” said that they have had to rethink many aspects of play production because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they have found ways to overcome the challenges put before them, they said. “In terms of the process of putting up a play, all of the categories are still there,” Elder said. “It’s just how the circumstances have changed how we approach solving those problems.”
Both directors said that figuring out how to stage the play and tell the story while keeping all of the cast members socially-distanced is one of the biggest challenges. “In the action of the play, typically those characters interact physically in many ways…and we cannot do that,” Bickerstaff said. “Trying to figure out how to tell the story under all of those conditions becomes a real creative problem-solving kind of a thing to do.”
The directors said that they have had to rely on creative storytelling to capture the essence of the story. “The lovely thing is we do this thing called theater, where if you can make it work, the audiences will still believe that it actually happened even if it wasn’t realistic,” Elder said.
For example, Elder praised Bickerstaff for how he handled a scene in “The Glass Menagerie” in which characters kiss. Elder said that to symbolize the kiss, both characters leaned in and lowered their masks for a brief moment. He said that this creative choice captured the vulnerability of the moment without compromising the safety of the cast members.
The directors said that there are many logistical challenges that go into putting on a play in the pandemic as well, such as the limited size of the rehearsal and performance space. Elder said that “Measure for Measure” has an 18-person cast. He said that social distancing with a large cast is especially difficult when only a few people are on stage and the rest are in the smaller backstage area. Bickerstaff said that “The Glass Menagerie” only had four cast members, but having space to maintain social distancing was still a concern because additional people, such as designers, directors, and stage managers, were also present during rehearsals and performances.
Elder said that protocols for quick costume changes also had to be adapted for the COVID-19 conditions. He said that backstage dressers wear a “very simplified version of a hazmat suit,” and have to be masked and gowned in order to help cast members change.
The directors also had to come up with backup plans in case students get sent home or if any of the cast members can’t physically be at rehearsals or a performance. Bickerstaff said that for “The Glass Menagerie,” one of the cast members had to virtually-rehearse for two of the four weeks of rehearsals. In case any cast member or the entire cast is unable to physically be in the theater during the actual performance, the directors said that they considered options such as having Zoom productions, having someone read the part of the absent cast members, or having absent cast members perform virtually via a video monitor. They said that thankfully the actual filming of “The Glass Menagerie” went smoothly and had the entire cast present, and that they are hoping for the same success for “Measure for Measure.”
There were additional challenges regarding “The Glass Menagerie” because it is a copyrighted production, Bickerstaff said. He said that depending on how they decided to put the play on, they had to pay different permissions to put it on, and because of the unknowns of COVID-19, the plans changed constantly. He said that every time there was a new development, he had to renegotiate with the company that holds the permissions. “I think we ended up with four or five different agreements at different points in time, and somewhere along the line the bill got paid,” he said. He said that they also had to be careful about who was in the theater when the play was recorded to make sure that they followed the rules of the permissions.
Besides the impacts that the pandemic has had on theater at Saint Mary’s, Elder also pointed out the impact the pandemic has had on the industry as a whole. He said that some theaters are laying off 95% of employees, entire seasons are shutting down, and places like Broadway aren’t even considering opening until spring.
However, both Bickerstaff and Elder acknowledged some positive developments for the industry as well. They mentioned that some concepts that have emerged out of necessity because of the pandemic, such as the use of online programs and the concept of streaming and videotaping productions, might continue after the pandemic is over. Elder added that many new creative scripts are emerging because theater shutdowns have given playwrights more time to write. Many of the new plays are specifically written to be performed virtually, he said.
Bickerstaff and Elder agreed that they and others involved in theater can’t wait for things to go back to normal, as the communal aspect of live-theater is what makes it so special. However, they said that until the pandemic is over, they are making the most out of it. “I think we’re getting it figured out under the circumstances, but wishing we weren’t having the circumstances that we’re having to figure out,” Bickerstaff said.
For anyone interested in viewing Saint Mary’s production of “Measure for Measure,” it will be live-streamed Nov. 5-7 beginning at 7:00 p.m. each night. A recording of the production will be released on Nov. 19th.