Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media along with the department of theatre and dance teamed up to create a virtual festival, where musicals, plays and dance performances performed in fall 2020 were edited into a video format and streamed online through the last half of March.
With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic came strict guidelines that proved difficult for such an intimate setting like theater. Adapting to social distancing in regularly close scenarios as well as putting on performances through Zoom have created an abundance of challenges for faculty and students in the College of the Arts.
Emma Wilcox, a senior musical theatre major, starred as Cassie in “A Chorus Line,” which was one of the shows available to watch. She described the difficulties of singing and dancing while masked, adding that individuals were able to film their solo scenes unmasked, but when it came to group numbers, the entire cast wore clear masks. Despite the challenges, Wilcox said they were able to pull together a wonderful production by the time filming for the virtual festival began.
“‘A Chorus Line’ is essentially an homage to the musical theater dancer’s experience and coming out of a year that had little to no theater at all, let alone Broadway productions,” Wilcox said. “I found it humbling and an honor to be able to represent the world of theater as it is just beginning to make a reappearance in 2021.”
Clay James, an associate professor of theatre and dance and director of “A Chorus Line,” describes that in normal times, the ending of the show would consist of a fade to black after the closing number, followed by a “thunderous applause and spontaneous standing ovation.”
“For our two performances in the [Alexander] Kasser Theater, there was total silence,” James said. “No one to meet them after the production and tell them how amazing they were. Just the sadness of an empty theater and lobby. That, for me and my Associate Choreographer, Kim Whittam, was truly heartbreaking.”
While the experience was different, James commends Montclair State for allowing it to happen, despite there being no live audience.
“Someday in the future, when the pandemic is long behind us and someone asks them what they did during it and how they coped, they will all have quite a story to tell and how their time at Montclair State was instrumental in making it happen,” James said. “Nothing will ever alter that amazing personal experience.”
Other featured productions, such as “We Are Proud…,” directed by Debbie Saivetz, an associate professor of theatre and dance, were filmed completely on Zoom. The show follows a group of actors struggling to tell a complex and difficult story regarding the first genocide of the 20th century.
“As an ensemble of theater makers, we had to tell this story in a medium different than that for which it was intended,” Saivetz said. “All aspects of production had to be changed to suit the Zoom medium and to tell the story in a two-dimensional space that’s neither theater nor film.”
Jocelyn Creekmur, a senior theatre studies major and cast member of “We Are Proud…,” discussed the difficulties of needing to take up more roles than simply being an actress when it came to putting on a Zoom production.
“Having to act and play as a lighting designer, sound and set designer, making sure my lighting was perfect, being heard and making sure I had all of the right backgrounds for each scene was quite the task,” Creekmur said. “Although it was a challenge for me and the cast, the production team held our hands through every step and through every rehearsal. It was very helpful and less overwhelming to have someone on screen helping me put up a green screen or hanging up extra lights in my space.”
Nayale Quimis, a senior acting major, starred in “An Enemy of the People” as Hovstad. The show was also featured in the virtual festival.
“While the world is still healing from a pandemic, being able to work on a play either way was super helpful in my own personal healing as a person and artist,” Quimis said. “We all wish we could act in person again, but it was a wonderful experience to be able to work on a project that I love, using a format that will keep people socially distant and safe.”
As for the future of these types of online performances, plans are already moving forward for the next season.
Maxine Steinman, an associate professor of theatre and dance, who created two pieces for Fall Dance 2020 —”A Measure of Quarantine,” which was inspired by the current pandemic, and “Masquerade Madness,” which revolved around the idea of a masked ball — believes the virtual format will continue.
“Of course live performance is the goal and there is really nothing like the sensation you get when seeing [a] performance live onstage, but I feel that dance film is what is happening now and it will continue alongside of live performance,” Steinman said. “I also feel that digital media will be a huge part of live performances in the future.”
The show must go on!🎭 Presenting the Department of Theatre & Dance’s Virtual Festival, filmed mostly during Fall 2020. Dance, musicals and other performances are available through the end of March.
🎟️Enjoy the show: https://t.co/2IhXj9hVdE pic.twitter.com/fjycJCCjBs
— Montclair State U (@montclairstateu) March 18, 2021
Peter Flynn, an associate professor of musical theatre and director of “Working,” gives credit to the students, who pushed through the challenges to create an excellent production.
“Each and every student artist involved is a rock star, seriously,” Flynn said. “Their determination, passion, dedication, talent and enthusiasm made this show possible.”
More information on how to stream the final shows can be found on the Peak Performances website.