The shows won’t be live, but pandemic theater will go on this season at Fresno State, Fresno City and COS
If a tree falls over on a stage and there isn’t a live audience to see it, is there a sound when the scenic designer howls with embarrassment?
In this, the damnable age of the pandemic, so many of our routines have been upended that it’s become — well, routine. It can seem frustrating to have to wrap our heads around yet another coping-with-coronavirus arts story. In this case, the challenge is how universities and colleges can continue to provide training in live theater while adhering to viral restrictions.
Above: Social distance meets the stage in a rehearsal of ‘Darkside.’ Kathleen McKinley, with open arms, is following rigorous safety protocols. Photo: Fresno State
Above: Social distance meets the stage in a rehearsal of ‘Darkside.’ Kathleen McKinley, with open arms, is following rigorous safety protocols. Photo: Fresno State
But it’s important to acknowledge the extent to which people are going to keep the arts alive.
At Fresno State, Fresno City College, and College of the Sequoias, the key has been flexibility.
“We adapted to a number of different plans over the summer, and I’ll tell you, live theater teaches you to be adaptable,” says Kathleen McKinley, a theater professor at Fresno State.
McKinley is in the exciting — if perhaps unenviable — position this semester of being the first faculty director to open a Fresno State show in the fall semester. She’s leading a production of “Darkside,” Tom Stoppard’s philosophical comedy, which in normal times would have kicked off a regular eight-performance run on Oct. 2.
An asterisk comes attached to the word “open,” of course. There won’t be any audience members in the John Wright Theatre on what would have been opening night.
Instead, about a month later, the plan is for the university to release “Darkside” virtually to audiences through one of the streaming platforms that has popped up to service theaters during the pandemic.
Actors started rehearsals in the theater on Aug. 23, one of the few classes allowed to meet in person on campus at Fresno State during the fall semester. Using a flurry of formulas approved by the highest reaches of the California State University bureaucracy — calculations that take into account the dimensions of the theater, the number of students involved and the activities engaged in — McKinley and her team devised a socially distanced rehearsal plan and schedule that includes protocols for everything from the use of props to the placement of cameras.
There will be three of those cameras trained on three “X’s” marked on stage, each one a good 10 feet or more from each other. From those filmed performances, and with the post-production magic of video effects and editing, Fresno State hopes to create a new variation on an art form, all done without actors getting within corona striking distance from each other.
“To all the traditions of theater, we are adding a new one: to protect each other and keep each other healthy,” McKinley says. “We will be discovering together a whole new approach of creating emotional connections between actors without people ever touching each other.”
That’s what Charles Erven, a longtime theater professor at Fresno City College, is hoping for, too, even though the process will be different. He’s skipping the theater format completely, teaming with the film and music programs at the college and making a compilation of short films with pandemic themes written and directed by locals, while Erven’s fellow faculty member, Janine Christl, plans a series of short documentary films.
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Chris Mangels, theater professor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, is planning a multimedia production that will likely feature “theatrical/music/movement performance, interviews, poetry/essays/graphic art submissions, and anything/everything else the ensemble agrees to include,” he says.
At Fresno State, everyone hopes the long summer endeavor to devise a doable season will pay off. Following “Darkside,” the department will go into production on “Detroit ‘67,” directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, a holdover from the spring (and whose set still stands in the university’s Woods Theatre); followed by a Shakespeare collection devised by Brad Myers titled “To Thine Own Self Be True.”
Each production will take a slightly different tack in terms of directorial vision and outcome, but they will share a common trait, says J. Daniel Herring, chair of the theater department.
“We have to provide our students with experiences,” Herring says. “It’s part of their degree program. It’s not like they can just sit behind the computer screen for the rest of the semester. I feel like this is a way of giving them something in a safe, controlled environment.”
It’s hot and smoky, nearly apocalyptic looking, the night of the first “Darkside” rehearsal. Just getting into the cool comfort of the John Wright Theatre for the cast is something of an adventure. These days, anyone arriving at the Fresno State campus has to complete a health survey online (essentially, answering no to a list of Covid-19 symptoms) and undergo a temperature check at a security checkpoint. When you’re cleared, you get a color-coded sticker to wear keyed to the day. (Just like the Metropolitan Museum badges in New York!)
McKinley is collecting those stickers. “I’ll have a memento of this bizarre rehearsal experience,” she explains.
As the cast members arrive at the theater, McKinley says to each:
Then: “Come to me, but not too close.”
From here follows a rigorous checklist, starting with: Get a roll of masking tape and put your name on a chair. (McKinley sprayed all the markers.) No one else will touch those chairs. Same will go for costumes, props and all the other accoutrements — from dressing areas to scripts — that are part of a production.
She puts on gloves, a mask and face shield — “It looks like I’m going to perform surgery,” she jokes — to pass out the scripts. Everyone gets their own face shields and masks, which go into individual brown bags off-limits to all but the owner.
Then, finally, McKinley is ready to give her introductory directorial pep talk.
“We have the opportunity of showing everyone a way of coming together to make theater,” she tells the cast, which is seated in a grand, socially distant circle on stage. “In a way, we’re all pioneers. You have to take that really seriously. We’re going to show it can work. it’s a really big responsibility, but it’s one that all of us chose.”
The cast — all 13 of them — cheers. The overall ensemble is a smaller crowd than you’d normally see at the first rehearsal of a Fresno State production. Usually students taking classes in scenic design, costumes and makeup would be on hand. With the pandemic, however, the only other class to get approval to work in the theater was lighting design, which is essential to the production.
And all this, it almost goes without saying, will happen with no audience at the end.
“We have to create a theater experience that feels like theater without that audience component, which is a big loss, but I still feel like we can provide that experience,” McKinley says.
Teya Juarez, a veteran Fresno State actor who plays the role of Onlooker/Radio Commentator, found it comforting at the first rehearsal to be in a room full of people serious about safety.
“Everyone was obviously taking the necessary precautions, knowing that we are all responsible for the health and well-being of the whole cast,” she says a few weeks later. “And with that weight off of my shoulders, rehearsals have still managed to be the outlet they were for me prior to the pandemic. Regardless of the circumstances, we are all still artists collaborating to make a unique piece of theatre.”
“Darkside” was written in 2013 by Stoppard as a radio play. It’s based on the 1973 Pink Floyd rock album “The Dark Side of the Moon.” When the pandemic hit and McKinley knew she would have to be adaptable if she were going to get a production of any kind on the boards, she gravitated toward the title.
She is melding specific characteristics of live theater, video, and graphic novels to create what she calls “a uniquely integrated final product.”
Filming in the theater will be against a black curtain. Actors will face straight out toward the camera. Though they will rehearse with masks and shields, the actual filming will be done without that personal protective equipment — with all social distancing requirements still applying. The result will be a highly stylized, pandemically driven hybrid of stage and film. McKinley describes the style as very much like a graphic novel.
“The biggest challenge for me as an actor has been trying to find the balance between acting for the stage and acting for the camera,” Juarez says. “It’s not as simple as acting for the stage OR acting for the camera. This specific project lies somewhere in between.”
After filming is completed, still to come will be weeks of editing and post-production work as the department teams with students in the Media, Communications and Journalism Department (MCJ) led by professor and veteran filmmaker Candace Egan. Those students and Egan will have a significant impact on the creative process. McKinley and Egan have worked together in the past on filmed versions of theater pieces, but this collaboration is breaking new ground.
They’re joined by Elizabeth Payne (costume designer and slide image design coordinator), Elizabeth Crifasi (lighting designer) and Regina Harris (sound designer).
Miguel Gastelum, Fresno State’s box office manager, says the university is deciding which streaming platform to use. “Ideally, we would like to utilize a company that hosts ticket sales and video streaming on the same platform,” he says. “Our current ticket vendor does not support video streams on their platform, so we are looking at all of our options and trying to find the best fit for us and our patrons.”
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As far as the finished product, it’s easy to say what “Darkside” will not be: It won’t be a Zoom-only production with actors quarantined into their own little “Brady Bunch” squares, a format we’ve seen explode in the past months. It won’t be an ambitious “bubble-type” experiment, a la the NBA, in which an entire production is quarantined together until delivering a socially distanced performance. It won’t be a Shakespeare-in-the-Park-type outdoor festival event with the audience spread out on a vast lawn.
And it won’t be a full-fledged film production, which is closer to the model that many other educational institutions across the country — including Fresno City and College of the Sequoias — are pursuing.
It’s going to be … something different.
“It’s a little daunting, I’m going to admit,” McKinley says. “Sometimes a challenge forces you to really use your imagination. But we’re all dealing with that, right? I’m just thrilled I get the opportunity to get in there and work with my students. We’re going to strive for excellence with this.”
In 1665, the Great Plague of London swept that city. Decades later, in 1722, Daniel Defoe published the book “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which reads like a first-person diary — and is perhaps based on Defoe’s uncle’s diary of the time — but is considered by many scholars to be a work of historical fiction. (Defoe himself was only 5 at the time of the plague.) Told with a narrative intensity that captures a city racked by bubonic plague, it focuses on individual tales of despair and resilience.
At Fresno City College, Erven is using that book as inspiration for a film production titled “Plague Diaries.”
He selected six short scripts written by six students from his playwriting and screenwriting classes, then paired them with student and community filmmakers.
Erven and film professor Steven Chin are overseeing the endeavor as executive producers. The fictional works — each between five and seven minutes long — will each open with a relevant quote from the Defoe book. Drone footage of the Fresno area (shot by a FCC class led by John Burroughs and John Huewe) will provide a visual connective tissue between the stories. Chris Brady, a music professor, and his students are adding an original score.
The overall theme is telling stories of Fresno during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Social distancing, essential workers, economic ruin, but also kindness and generosity, are as relevant today as the day Defoe set down his account in 1722,” Erven says.
And how does the pandemic affect the making of the films?
Pre-production and rehearsals will be done online. Students will only be together on actual filming days, and then in reduced numbers in terms of cast and crew. The shoots will be following strict safety guidelines based on the most recent Screen Actors Guild pandemic agreement.
“The scripts were written to accommodate social distancing,” Erven says. “Most are set outdoors. There are one or two characters in most pieces. One has three.”
Fresno City College hopes to release the film in a streaming format on Dec. 11.
Meanwhile, at College of the Sequoias, Mangels is bringing 20 or so cast members (10 current COS students, five alumni, five community members and five COS faculty/staff members) together for “Looking Ahead, Our Eyes Wide Open,” which he describes as a “2020 Vision” multimedia production focused on imagining the future of a world that we want our children to inherit. “We envision it as a promising vision of hope brought to our community,” he says.
The first week of “‘rehearsals,” which begin Thursday, Sept. 10, will consist of a private online workshop with professional teaching artists from the Moment Work Institute in New York. The MWI is the educational branch of Tectonic Theatre Project, Moises Kaufman’s ensemble that created “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde.”
The goal is to have the project completed for a digital release on Nov. 1, though episodes or segments might be released in advance.
Mangels sees the piece as including isolated segments filmed at individual homes along with the possibility of going out into the community to film certain sequences — all properly socially distanced, of course.
“I am hoping that it will manage at different moments to be entertaining, inspiring, and educational, but mostly I am hoping it will reflect our diverse community and multiple perspectives,” he says.
Also on tap for fall: Theater professor James McDonnell will lead a script-analysis intensive with a company of actors preparing for a spring production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.”
After “Darkside” does its guinea pig thing, two productions at Fresno State will follow closely behind. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis will offer a reprise of sorts with “Detroit ‘67,” a production that he had planned to open in the spring before the pandemic hit, albeit with a completely different cast.
The production will use the existing set with the university’s new protocols (three stationary cameras, masks/face shields for rehearsals, actors 6 feet apart for filming).
“Very little will change in terms of original blocking,” Ellis says. “Ironically, because it’s important to fill the stage area as much as possible and avoid clustering people as a matter of balance and framing, we were pretty much adhering to social distancing before COVID hit. Now, because of the filming component, we’re going to see what we can do to make everything work and still remain in appropriate places for the camera angles.”
Still, “Detroit ‘67” won’t look like a theater piece filmed from the back of the house. Ellis plans close-ups, two shots, medium shots, and over-the-shoulder angles for variety.
“I don’t plan to shoot the play as it’s performed for the stage,” he says.
His rough model is the Dustin Hoffman/John Malkovich production of “Death of a Salesman,” which he calls an exceptional hybrid of both stage and film acting technique.
Then there’s the “December” Fresno State production, which probably won’t be available for viewing until after the first of the year. For Brad Myers, the December production slot was originally going to be “Dracula.”
Neck biting? Not an easy thing to pull off with social distancing.
So Myers switched gears and opted for a themed take on Shakespeare scenes and monologues. Titled “To Thine Own Self Be True: Gender, Sexuality, and the Bard,” Myers sees the production as a way to confront gender stereotypes and reimagine scenes from LGBTQ perspectives. Think the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene being played by two men. A non-binary Cleopatra.
All will follow the Fresno State rehearsal and filming protocols.
While Myers would have liked to deliver a terrifying vampire tale, he’s looking at the positive side of the changed circumstances.
“I think it’s kind of exciting,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity for our actors to get more experience in acting for the camera.”
Still, in his many years as a director, this is a new one for him.
Did he ever think he’d have to direct romantic scenes between actors while making sure the lovers stayed 6 feet apart?
“I never, ever did,” he says.
You’ve got to hand it to these theater folks. The common denominator locally is a concerted effort to keep theater education going for students — and to keep audiences in the habit of supporting local collegiate productions, even if they’re streamed on computer screens instead of live on stage.
“The outlook I’ve got to have is that all of this is going to create a positive experience,” Herring says. “I don’t know what the artistic quality is going to be, and I’ll be perfectly honest about that — but it’s a matter of rethinking ways of staging things.”
More important than the slickness or artistic success of any of these experimental productions is the opportunities they’ll be able to provide students mostly grounded by the pandemic.
As an arts writer, I’ve become increasingly concerned in recent months with all that we’re losing in the shutdown of live theater, music and visual arts. It might be tolerable for a 30-year-old person to have one’s creative spirit sapped for a year or even two — awful at the time, yes, but a surmountable situation — but I fear that it could be different for our young people in the formative stages of their artistic development. How do you make up those two crucial years for youngsters from ages 13 to 15, say, as they grow and mature? Or replace the opportunities lost for college students exploring their creative options?
I fear for the young concert musicians who don’t get those ensemble orchestral experiences. I fear for the young visual artists who never regain the momentum they had in painting class.
And I fear for the budding actors who might have been on a roll before the pandemic and will never be able to achieve that same artistic velocity.
Andrew Mickelson, a familiar face to patrons of recent Good Company Players and Fresno State productions, says that being able to perform in “Darkside” after going through a creative drought has been uplifting.
“When everything had shut down during the beginning of the pandemic I felt unmotivated and antisocial, but that first rehearsal changed all that,” he says. “I feel restored now because everyone is able to work in something we love doing with wonderful, bright people again — regardless of the adversity we face.”
For Mangels, at COS, the pandemic has been a chance to regroup and reassess, even as he knows how devastating this has been for everyone physically, socially, and economically.
“I figure I can either bemoan the loss of normalcy or explore this unique opportunity to build a better COS Theatre and a better Professor Mangels,” he says. “More than anything, though, I am grateful for the health of my family, my role in higher education, and this opportunity to try and make the world a better place. The live theater has weathered 3,000 years of human history even more harrowing than our own. I believe it will be there, waiting for us, when we eventually return.”