Luke Jorgenson (Lee Pellegrini)
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, the Theatre Department/Robsham Theater Arts Center productions—then in full swing—came to an abrupt halt. A play, “The Wolves,” was set to open, and the musical “City of Angels,” had had only one rehearsal. This semester, the shows will go on, amid strict safety protocols and in vastly different forms. These uncharted presentations will once again capture and portray the talents, energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and hard work of all involved—including students, faculty, and staff members.
Theatre Department Chair Luke Jorgensen, associate professor of the practice, recently discussed fall plans and provided insights into the creative efforts of the production teams. The preparations have not been easy, he noted, and would have been impossible without the full support of Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Kalscheur, S.J., Morrissey College Associate Dean Eugene McMahon, and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley.
Your thoughts about the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts?
The performing arts have been hit extremely hard by COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, we closed down immediately. It was a difficult and emotional time for all of our students. In approaching this this year, I wanted to find a way to make performances happen. As an academic theater department, our productions are vital laboratory experiences for students. We did not want to give up on performing, but wanted to make sure that whatever we did was done in the safest way possible. Once we created a plan for how we could accomplish goals using technology like Zoom, green screens and film editing, we needed some upgrades in technology. This semester has been a true experiment. We have all been challenged to learn new approaches to making performances and acquiring the skills needed to bring these plans to fruition. It has been the busiest semester we have ever had, as the faculty and staff have struggled to pivot into this new world. Our faculty, staff, and students have been fantastic, absolutely above and beyond.
Give us a glimpse of the two productions this fall.
Our season starts off with “Sweat” [October 22-25], a 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage. “Sweat” tells the story of a group of factory workers in Reading, Pa. When layoffs begin, so do the issues of race, discrimination, and poverty that are plaguing our nation today. Faculty member Patricia Riggin is directing the hard-hitting modern drama. After that our Monan Professor in Theatre Arts, Paula Plum, is directing “Twelfth Night” [November 19-22] by William Shakespeare. She is an extremely accomplished actor/director and is presenting this production of one of Shakespeare’s best comedies as a film. These shows are wildly different in tone, subject, and method of performance delivery.
How will they be presented in keeping with pandemic protocols?
We made the early decision that all auditions this year would be virtual. Students submitted audition videos, and even callbacks have been conducted via Zoom. Both shows are using the normal time frames that we use to make our shows but they are anything but “normal” in production. “Sweat” is being produced via a Zoom webinar format, with an exciting twist: Students will be performing live in eight separate offices. A few of our BC actors involved in the production are at home, states away, and have attended all rehearsals virtually. Each office will be fitted with a green screen and lights and our students, with the help of the talented Production Manager Russ Swift and Technical Supervisor George Cooke, will manipulate the green screen with virtual backgrounds to look as if the actors are together and in a bar. We have truly been on the cutting edge of performance in this medium, experimenting with ways to use Zoom in a new way; at one point, students may even physically switch offices to make exits and entrances on screen appear more normal.
“Twelfth Night” is being presented as a film. With some help from the Film Department, we have begun filming in front of a huge green screen. The integration of musicians, fight choreography, and physically-intimate-feeling blocking are certainly more challenging from a proper physical distance. Performing with masks in acting classes and rehearsals make matters more difficult, certainly, but improvisation is at the core of people who work in the arts. So even though our students are not yet doing a rehearsal and performance in the usual way, I believe students are getting new, broader skill sets, both in technology and acting for film and screen.
“This semester has been a true experiment. We have all been challenged to learn new approaches to making performances and acquiring the skills needed to bring these plans to fruition. It has been the busiest semester we have ever had, as the faculty and staff have struggled to pivot into this new world. Our faculty, staff, and students have been fantastic, absolutely above and beyond.”
What are the challenges of these approaches—for directors, cast, crew, others?
COVID precautions have affected every level of production, from auditions to costuming, blocking, and who can see our shows and how. Present regulations dictate that only 25 people can be part of a performance. That includes actors, technicians, stage managers, and the audience. Plays at Boston College involve so many students that it has made more sense to not include any live audience. Our actors are used to reacting to the energy of the audience: They will not hear gasps or laughter at these shows, and that will be a new experience for them. Students will have their own individual props that won’t be shared with other actors. Makeup and costumes will need to be handled without assistance from others, and our costume shop has taken serious steps to ensure safety as laundry, fittings, and costume up-keep still have to be done. Next semester we will continue to make theater within COVID protocols and are looking at new options like outdoor presentations.
Why did you decide to move forward with productions, given the added challenges?
I recognize that many colleges have made the decision not to have performances this year. I believe that the arts are most needed when times are difficult. I think we owe it to our students, who have come to BC because of our great program, to do our best to adapt to the new rules and regulations without buckling under them. Professional theaters are closed and artists are not making ends meet. We are fortunate that the University can allow us to function without the concern of box office gains, so our shows are being offered basically free. These are uncharted waters, but I hope that people choose to tune in; who knows, perhaps a larger audience of people who would not be able to be physically present at Robsham can see the talent and effort of our students. It has not been easy. Negotiating how staff and students can be safe and feel safe has been a daily task.
How do you think audiences will respond?
That is the question; we are all wondering. I think we all miss the community of watching and making a play together. Nothing replaces the feeling of interplay as we all sit in the same place, breathing the same air and together witnessing a theatrical creation. However, we hope that we are using these mediums in a very creative way and I think the energy our students are putting forth is really going to come through the camera and shine.
“Performing with masks in acting classes and rehearsals make matters more difficult, certainly, but improvisation is at the core of people who work in the arts. So even though our students are not yet doing a rehearsal and performance in the usual way, I believe students are getting new, broader skill sets, both in technology and acting for film and screen.”
These productions are new experiences for students. What will they learn?
Improvisation, resiliency, adaptability, creative problem-solving, and communication. Our theater students want to be live and in person at BC. They are following the rules and stretching to make the absolute best within the situation we have been dealt.
Are student-directed productions continuing?
Student productions have changed but are still happening. The difficulty has been the inability to do musicals. Singing is problematic within pandemic prevention rules, so some shows have been changed. I think it has taken our students and our department some time to look at the situation and adapt to it, but student-directed shows are coming. Two have just been cast and next semester audiences can look forward to more student-directed theater including “The History of Color” directed by Allison Lardner ’21, and “Proof” directed by Jacob Kelleher ’21.
Any parting thoughts on this unusual season?
I am proud of our season this year. We have worked hard not only to survive and flourish during the pandemic, but also to choose theater that creates a dialogue about anti-racism and diversity.
For more on the fall Theatre Department/Robsham Theater Arts Center productions, and how to view them, see bc.edu/theatre.
Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | October 2020