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The show must go on

All the world’s a stage, but what happens when the world is in lockdown?

A masked statue of Caesar from PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Julius Caesar” sits outside the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.
A masked statue of Caesar from PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Julius Caesar” sits outside the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.

What do the performing arts look like during a viral pandemic? Groups at Carolina are answering that question with inventive new ways to reach their audiences and provide inspiration during a difficult time.

PlayMakers Repertory Company and the Department of Music and UNC Opera — both in the College of Arts & Sciences — have adapted their fall seasons to digital formats so students and faculty can still perform while keeping everyone safe from the spread of COVID-19.

PlayMakers recently announced a revised 2020-2021 season comprised of one-person shows and digital performances that will all be available through streaming. UNC Opera will produce two operas, one a pre-recorded film and the other an animation. And the department of music is preparing its bands and ensembles to practice and perform concerts via Zoom.

These adaptions signal a newly forged partnership between the performing arts and technology. Artists from Carolina’s performance groups cite the pandemic’s biggest challenge as losing their creative outlet. With no end to the pandemic in sight, livestreams and recorded performances are a compromise that artists are willing to make to keep their craft alive. But adapting on the fly requires a different kind of creativity and resourcefulness. And while all the artists express the hope that they will be allowed to perform for live audiences again soon, they note that they will adopt many of the changes permanently after receiving enthusiastic feedback from their new fans.

Acting for Zoom

PlayMakers Repertory Company ended its run of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” prematurely on March 17 but quickly began planning how to continue performing for a crowd desperate for creative expression.

The cast recorded monologues from the production at home for those who never got the chance to see the production, but, said Teaching Professor Jeffrey Blair Cornell in the College of Arts & Sciences’ department of dramatic art, who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” nothing can replace live theater.

“Zoom is not theater, and yet we’ve all come to realize that it can be a medium for some meaningful dialogue and artistic expression,” said Cornell. “It’s not without value; it’s just not the same quality. Out of necessity, we’re coming to accept those limitations without accepting that they are optimal.”

Some of those limitations include a much smaller space to work in, not having a scene partner physically present and missing the connection and feedback that a true live audience brings. In trying to combat these limitations, a new element to PlayMakers’ digital performances emerged: the permanence of the internet. Recording a performance for posterity is a novel experience for the actors at PlayMakers, a theatrical company comprised of rotating Carolina faculty, graduate students and professional actors.

“I think as stage actors, we accept and actually enjoy the fact that our performance is temporal and only exists in the minds and memories of the audience,” said Cornell. “Having said that, one silver lining of digital performances is looking back at it knowing how I felt at the time as that character, because so little of my work is preserved in that way.”

PlayMakers’ 45th season, All Too Human, explores the resilience of the human spirit and features only pre-recorded or streamed performances for a digital audience. The reinvented season will include Ray Dooley’s one-man performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”; the world premiere of Carolina professor and playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “Edges of Time”; an encore performance of Durham native Kane Smego’s one-man hip-hop odyssey “Temples of Lung and Air”; a live reading of “The Storyteller,” by Sara Jean Accuardi; a blues-infused reinvention of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”; and a one-man performance of Mike Wiley’s acclaimed “Blood Done Sign My Name.” All performances will be streamed to live audiences, a first for PlayMakers.

The adaptions to PlayMakers’ performances are mirrored by the changes faculty are making to continue to teach in the fall. While some instructors in the department of dramatic art planned on teaching their courses in person with safety measures, all courses have now transitioned to remote learning as of Aug. 17.

In order to teach effectively via Zoom, professors like Cornell are embracing the limitations of Zoom to expand their students’ perspective on staging. One innovative way of interacting via Zoom is treating the camera’s view as the stage itself and working within that frame, a method Cornell encountered in an acting workshop this summer and adapted for his courses.

“I can make an entrance into the shot by moving into the camera’s range. I could have props placed within the shot or even aim the camera at a certain area of the room I want to utilize,” said Cornell. “There are ways to be creative with this little box.”

Students in the department of dramatic arts perform a scene with a partner, hiding their shared video screen so that they only see the other person, while the other acting students in the class mute themselves and turn off their video so they’re only seeing the two people doing the scene. Once the scene ends, everyone turns their video screens back on and discusses the performance.

Cornell is embracing teaching and acting remotely until it’s safe to reunite his students on the stage again, but he also believes “the great pause” during the pandemic will lead to long-lasting change in how theater is taught and performed. He said he and his colleagues have had time to reconsider the structure of mainstream theater and reflect on the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That soul-searching has given rise to a fresh perspective on theater and its past and future.

“This pause is a time to reconsider this inherited sense of the white primacy at the center of our storytelling in the theater and move toward a true recognition that American-ness is different than we thought it was,” said Cornell. “The only way to get true equality is for us to recognize that we have to give up our white privilege as storytellers.”

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