For so many of us, the world seemed to come to a sudden stop back in March. When the novel coronavirus spread around the globe, almost everything changed. At Eastern Washington University, administrators moved classes online, asked most employees to work from home, and canceled in-person events on campus. The impact was particularly difficult for EWU’s theatre program. Amidst their winter production—the world they knew stopped.
“We were in the middle of a show during the week when the shutdowns happened. It was a shock,” remembers Jared Martin, a senior double majoring in theatre and visual communication design. “We had finished our first weekend of Silent Sky and all of the sudden we were hearing the possibility of cancelling the second weekend.”
Martin says the situation was especially difficult because it was completely out of their control. The department tried to postpone the show, but faculty members couldn’t have predicted how long the safety restrictions would last.
“Spring quarter was really hard for everyone because we had to cancel our live production,” says Jessica Ray, a lecturer in EWU’s theatre program. “It was actually kind of a disheartening time for the entire department.”
But theater folks are nothing if not creative. Even though they were forced to cancel their spring production as well, it didn’t take long for the department to adapt an in-person discipline to an online format.
“We were able to run our class loads and seniors were able to finish their capstone projects, they just took a different form than before,” explains Jeff Sanders, a senior lecturer in the department. “With live stage options gone, we did more professional portfolio work with the students, like learning how to do self-taping.”
Another example, explains Sanders, was changing the voice and movement class to an acting for the camera class. “As much as there is tragedy in abundance in every corner of the world during this time, we were able to find ways to utilize the situation to give students the skills that they actually need,” he says.
While students had a lot of concerns and questions in the beginning—and frankly still do as fall quarter approaches—most tackled the new challenges head-on knowing they will be better prepared for the changing industry they’ll soon enter.
“Luckily the transition of theater classes to the online format worked out extremely well,” says Martin. “Instead of putting on a capstone show, me and my fellow seniors spent the quarter learning valuable tools to build a career in these trying times.”
Paige Pedersen, an incoming senior majoring in business management with minors in economics and theatre, agrees. She aspires to become a stage manager and understands the importance of adding more skills to her resume. “I am hoping that being involved with this new form of theater will help to expand my experience and prepare me for what theater could look like in the future,” she says.
As the program continues to adjust to the changing landscape, faculty and students are working together to find creative new ways to share their craft. “Through this process we learned a lot about the opportunities in these new formats,” says Ray. “Now a lot of our classes are exploring those unique opportunities.”
The next unique opportunity will be a daunting yet exciting challenge: virtual theater. Because EWU Theatre will not be able to host a live audience on campus this fall, they’ve decided to go all in on the next iteration of theater. For their fall production, students will perform She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms on a video conferencing platform like Zoom.
“I really love the title of it and the journey of the protagonist,” says Sanders. “I feel like we all have our monster right now and this journey of self-discovery and perseverance in the face of that monster, and ultimately killing that monster, is a story that I think we can all connect to.”
The playwright, Qui Nguyen, revamped the work in late April to create a version specifically designed for an online format. She Kills Monsters tells the story of a teenage girl in the aftermath of the death of her sister. When she finds her sister’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook, she stumbles into a journey of discovery and action-packed adventure in an imaginary world.
“We seized upon this for our fall production because it gives us that creative project that we know will work,” says Sanders. “And it gives us a lot of fun design opportunities to create this fantasy world, so it gives our tech students a lot to chew on.”
The unknown of virtual theater will certainly give the whole team a lot to chew on. Sanders and Ray admit they don’t know exactly what the production will look like at this point. They’re currently in the early design phase, which includes a lot of trial and error as they experiment with the technology.
“At this point, we’re in a really big fact and information gathering stage and trying to put a plan in place for our production crew, for our designers, for the potential actors, and how this unit—where potentially everyone is all over—will come together as a united force,” says Ray. “This is really the unique and exciting part, but also the really scary part.”
The department will schedule four live-stream showings of the production between November 13-21. Exact days and times will be released in the coming months. And even though the production will be online, the team is working to make as much of it live as possible. They hope to keep it as authentic to theater as possible while still experimenting with new ways to tell stories and connect with the audience.
The students involved are looking forward to the new challenge. Pedersen will serve as stage manager, her second-time doing so for an EWU production. She’s already thinking ahead, hoping to avoid technical problems.
“In order to deal with the show being completely online, I think the most important thing for all of us will be constant communication,” she says. “This way everyone is on the same page and we can try to avoid last minute issues as much as possible.”
Martin will create illustrations for the show, a large role given the fantasy element to the play. “She Kills Monsters is an incredibly interesting show because it embraces the digital medium and has lots of opportunities to make it your own,” he says. “I will be there to help make up for the lack of fight scenes and “in-your-face” visuals we would otherwise have in live theater.”
Actor auditions are already scheduled for later this week. Email Jeff Sanders if you are interested in being a part of the production. He encourages students from all disciplines to consider being a part of the theatre—especially this fall as they troubleshoot new technologies.
“If you’re a tech student who needs a problem to solve,” he adds, “man I’ve got something for you!”
While the team discusses the upcoming challenges, they do so with smiles and laughter because they know they’re helping to write the future of theater.
“There’s something beautiful about attaching yourself to a creative project right now,” Ray says. “With all the things that are happening, in all of our lives, there’s a positive energy that comes from creating something. We’re ready for something positive.”