In theater, last-minute surprises are just part of the job. The show almost always goes on. But a global pandemic led to performance cancellations everywhere in the spring, including at community colleges.
This fall, many colleges have gotten creative with their creative arts programming. Santa Monica College‘s theatre arts department is presenting the play “The Seven Ravens” online, calling it a “play-on-film.” Eastern Arizona College (EAC) will present the play “Home Fires” both live with restrictions and streamed online.
“The theatre department has worked tirelessly to creatively stage a play during a pandemic,” Director Elizabeth Henley said in a release from EAC. “With these challenges in mind, we’ve staged ‘Home Fires’ like a play within a play anchored at a 1940s radio station. Through this concept, actors are able to spread out at various times in the play more than they might ordinarily. Likewise, they have omitted props and, instead, invite the audience to imagine with them the world that they are creating.”
In New York, Corning Community College will take on timely topics with a virtual presentation of “America: Seasons of Struggle, Harvest of Hope” in early December. The show will spotlight the struggles faced by people of color, women, LGBTQ+ communities and the international fight to save the environment.
In Wyoming, Laramie County Community College (LCCC’s) also is seizing the moment, presenting “Stories from Quarantine.”
Spotlight on the present
LCCC’s theatre program took advantage of good weather by staging outdoor Shakespeare readings. Theatre students could get performance experience while still allowing for social distancing.
Planning for Wyoming’s colder months was a bit trickier, though. Instructor Jason Pasqua came up with “Stories from Quarantine,” a virtual theatrical experience featuring original student writing. The filmed performances were made available for free online in mid-November.
Over the summer, Pasqua was a guest director at Snowy Range Summer Theatre, where he directed a virtual performance of “God of Carnage.”
“We figured out how to livestream it from four different locations,” he said. “We learned and taught ourselves very quickly.”
That learning helped him this fall at LCCC with “Stories from Quarantine.”
Pasqua, who is a “one-man department,” wanted to devise a way for students to collaborate, cooperate and create a piece of theater that might revolve around a theme or idea. Students were tasked with writing a scene or monologue about what has happened in their worlds – not just due to the pandemic, but also due to nearby wildfires and the national social justice movement after the killing of George Floyd.
A theme emerged: “I can’t breathe.”
Because some classes are purely online and some are hybrid, some pieces were filmed at the college, while others were filmed in students’ homes. The theatre program used some federal CARES Act funding to get equipment to keep the program going virtually.
Keeping students moving forward
It’s obviously not ideal for theatre students to perform in front of the camera rather than a live audience, but it’s a good alternative, Pasqua said.
“Video streaming is great. It’s what we have to do. It’s how we can keep the students moving forward,” he said. “But that’s film and television. Theater is theater, and live is live.”
In March, Pasqua was forced to do the unthinkable: cancel a show.
“We had a very strong group of students who were set to graduate and have those performances in spring be their final experience with me,” he said. “We didn’t get to finish that. It’s disappointing when a job is left undone.”
The coming spring semester will look a lot like the fall semester, according to Pasqua. However, there is something to look forward to post-pandemic: LCCC is finishing a brand-new performing arts space.
“It’s sort of a cruel joke,” Pasqua said. “We’ll have a beautiful new space, but can we put any people in it? That remains to be seen.”
Despite traditional theater being waylaid in 2020, Pasqua said this year has provided good lessons for students.
“The biggest lesson we’re teaching our students: get to work,” he said. “It’s always going to be hard. There’s always going to be something to overcome. You better learn how to buck up, go to work, set a goal for yourself and not back down.”
On November 19, the proverbial curtain rose on the Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) Patriot Players’ 32nd show, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
The actors – students from the local K-12 schools – sang their hearts out while wearing special, clear face masks. Their families sat spaced apart in the theater, while the rest of the live audience watched from their homes.
It wasn’t how Patriot Player Artistic Director Devin Pendleton imagined the new theater season to begin, but adapting is something theater people do well.
Until a couple weeks ago, costumes from the Patriot Players’ 31st show, “Sister Act,” hung in the theater. That show, which featured nearly 30 actors, was canceled due to the pandemic.
“We couldn’t do it justice livestream. We needed an audience,” said Pendleton, who also serves as PHCC’s coordinator of campus life and fine arts.
For “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” the original hope was to perform the show with a drive-in audience. But with Covid rates trending up, Pendleton didn’t want to take any chances.
“We’re making sure we’re adhering to PHCC’s Safe Welcome Back plan and the state’s K-12 performing arts guidance,” Pendleton said. “It’s hard for us because we want to make sure we do things correctly. We represent community colleges and the state of Virginia.”
Though “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” wasn’t a show Pendleton would normally select for the Patriot Players, it appealed time him during the time of Covid. The show only has a cast of six and can be staged with the actors safely distanced from each other.
To keep the six young performers and their families safe, the rehearsal period was greatly shortened. The performance space was sanitized before rehearsals and performances, and again after. Pendleton personally checked the temperature of each actor and their families when they entered. Families had assigned seating throughout the entire rehearsal and performance period and were responsible for wiping down their own section.
“I’m so thankful we have an opportunity to see and be seen in 2020,” Pendleton said.
Bringing together community
The PHCC Patriot Players put on four or five big musicals a year. Though PHCC runs the performing troupe, it is a true community theater experience. Local students and community members are invited and encouraged to engage with the Patriot Players either onstage or behind-the-scenes. That allows the group to mount big-name musicals such as “The Color Purple,” “Shrek,” “Into the Woods” and more. Just last year, Pendleton directed Disney’s “Frozen Jr.” with 68 children.
PHCC is in rural Martinsville, Virginia. Large-scale touring shows don’t stop there. But when the Patriot Players put on a performance, the community turns out, sometimes driving long distances and often selling out performances in the 300-seat theater. Prior to this year, ticket sales brought in enough revenue that the program can mostly sustain itself.
The Patriot Players also bring to campus potential students and alumni. Many of the high school students who participate in the Patriot Players end up enrolling at the college.
“It’s an opportunity for our community college to bring folks on campus who might otherwise have not been on our campus and they see what we have to offer,” Pendleton said.
PHCC students can get hands-on learning opportunities with the Patriot Players as stage managers or doing lighting or set construction, sometimes earning college credit for that work.
For Pendleton, the Patriot Players are “a light in the community.” And it’s a light that won’t be extinguished.
“The arts are what you make it. If it has to be livestream, that’s how it has to be,” he said.