From stage to screen, performers are adapting during the pandemic

A single dancer, photographed from a distance, dances atop a grassy hill against a clear, blue sky

No one can deny that the pandemic has upended every facet of life and pushed us all to reconsider the ways in which we’ve always worked.

But for those in the performing arts, every stay-at-home order and 6-foot perimeter points back to a central question: If the performers are all at home and there’s no one in the audience, did a production really happen?

At VCUarts, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Specialized equipment and technology — like high-quality recorders, green screens, video editing software and bell covers to capture the aerosols emitted by musical instruments — have allowed performers to adapt their on-stage methods. Meanwhile, video conferencing platforms and streaming services have made it possible to reach a wider audience than they ever thought possible.

While these dancers, actors, stage managers and musicians all look forward to the day they return to a packed house, they also agree that some of their adaptations just might be worth keeping.

Leaning in

“Improv is the perfect medium to bring people together,” said Elizabeth Byland, head of improv in the VCUarts Department of Theatre. “It is thriving right now across Twitch and YouTube.”

That’s how Byland found one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic: In a virtual world, improv performers can connect with colleagues across the globe.

Personally, Byland has joined workshops from Liverpool Comedy Improv in the U.K., learning from teachers who she would otherwise never have the opportunity to work with. For her students, Byland assembled a multi-university ImprovFest in November with participants from the mid-Atlantic, Northeast and the Midwest logging in. She even contacted universities in Alaska, just to see how far she could go.

Each university team performed a set, and improvisers participated in open jams, where they played games and practiced scene work. Audience members could watch the show and interact with performers using Zoom’s chat feature. 

Elizabeth Byland, head of improv in the VCUarts Department of Theatre, hosts a virtual ImprovFest for college improv teams around the U.S.

Byland has planned a number of improv festivals in the past, bringing in performers from out of town for big, live events. But this past spring, she realized that a global pandemic might actually be the best time to organize a festival. The logistics would be considerably less complicated for the organizers. And colleges would have fewer barriers, such as travel and cost, preventing them from participating.

“If we can’t be in person, then let’s double down,” she said. “Let’s lean into this. Let’s push the envelope and try to get as many people from different backgrounds, different walks of life to come together in this kind of academic setting.” 

A ‘vast, empty plane’

In Megan Siepka’s senior capstone project last year, A Cleansing in Three Acts, the dance major explored concepts of isolation and connection as a result of external forces — perfect themes for a dance film released eight months into a global pandemic. But it was precisely the pandemic that took an idea rooted in personal experiences and gave it even more resonance and meaning.

To represent the dueling concepts, Siepka was drawn to a sense of vastness, which she conveyed through a variety of scenes and venues featuring water.

“Choreography, for me, stems from motifs and moods,” she said. “I had a lot of overwhelming feelings going on, and I think that read in the work.” 

For the final segment of her capstone project, Megan Siepka filmed dancers individually in the Grace Street Theater against a black backdrop with simple lighting, then layered the dancers over one another to “achieve the illusion of everyone being in the space.”

Siepka also discovered new facets of choreography in the transition from a stage performance to a film project. For example, in the final segment, she filmed each dancer individually in the Grace Street Theater against a black backdrop with simple lighting.

“The image I was going for was a black hole, this vast, empty plane,” she said. “It was kind of ethereal and looked like they were floating. The plain background made it easier for me to layer the dancers over one another and achieve the illusion of everyone being in the space in the way I wanted them to be, of people coming together and performing in a time when we can’t do that.

“I learned that editing is very much choreography. It’s like three different levels: What is the movement? How am I framing it? And then how am I editing it?”

With adaptation comes new skills

Recognizing that adaptation has been a defining word for life in a pandemic, students and faculty in the music department spent the fall semester interpreting it through song.

The department’s four choral ensembles — Commonwealth Singers, Choral Arts Society, Vox Concordia and the Vocal Chamber Ensemble — each received a prompt addressing the concept of adaptation. One asked how people have turned to music to overcome and adjust to disparities and conflict. Others questioned how musicians who have been silenced by oppression have found expression through text and song, or how enslaved people have honored their heritage and communicated their hopes and fears. A fourth wondered how music overcame widespread plague to become the ultimate human expression. 

In response, each group developed a selection of video and audio recordings. For instance, a recording of the African American spiritual Deep River was paired with 30-second clips of the James River supplied by each member of the ensemble. For “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco, the performers were asked to sing in front of a brick or stone background, mimicking an opera set.

Filipe Leitão, a professor in the music and cinema departments, then helped edit the films together and create a narrative arc. An online unveiling of the complete work is planned for the spring.

The Vocal Chamber Ensemble on campus.

“The students are still learning repertoire, they’re learning languages, they’re learning how repertoire fits within a culturally relevant society,” said Erin Freeman, an assistant professor and director of choral activities in the Department of Music. “But then on the flip side, they are having to listen to themselves much more than they usually do. They have to rely on themselves much more heavily. They’re having to learn how to record a video or audio, how to share large files. These are all things that those of us in the working field have to know.”

Creating a virtual realm

Last fall, the theater department presented its first virtual production, She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms. The story follows Agnes Evans, a high schooler in Ohio who thinks of herself as the world’s most average teenager — until her little sister Tilly dies suddenly. Agnes finds Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook and decides to play the campaign her sister created.

Playwright Qui Nguyen adapted Virtual Realms from his original She Kills Monsters for online performances in response to the pandemic and the closure of theaters worldwide.

The production consisted of prerecorded scenes, often in the actors’ homes using Zoom. Some were shot outdoors, or using a green screen studio. Footage was then edited in post-production — a much more collaborative directorial process.

Still image from the theatre department’s production of She Kills Monsters

“Everyone’s skills and services were used as we worked in this very different medium,” said Sharon Ott, chair and artistic director of the theater department. “There is no way to really compare it to performing live in front of an audience, but it was a learning experience nevertheless for all involved — the actors, the designers and everyone.

“Our stage management team had to not only fill those roles, as they would have in a live production, but also had to learn the skills of a film crew. Our set designers had to become art directors. Our lighting design student became an animator, and our actors perfected their camera acting skills. All of us had to embrace the new form for this new reality,” Ott said.

Their efforts paid off. The production was one of 10 selected to show at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in early February. In addition, several students were nominated for festival awards for their work as animators, prop and costume designers, production designers, actors and stage managers.

This spring, the department plans to offer two additional filmed performances: Spring Awakening, which was canceled in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, and I and You. They are also preparing an outdoor production of the commedia play The Dentist

Expanding the community 

In a typical year, music professors Tiffany Valvo, D.M.A., and Tabatha Easley, D.M.A., travel the state to visit high schools and meet with young musicians. They host instrument-specific clinics, give feedback in rehearsals, and talk about the VCU Department of Music. Sometimes they speak about industry topics, such as performance anxiety and life as a professional musician, or perform as a small chamber ensemble.

The visits are valuable — but also time-consuming and cumbersome. A trip to Northern Virginia would entail extensive planning to coordinate the schedules of multiple high schools, not to mention several hours in the car.

When the pandemic hit and schools were shuttered, Valvo started offering a free weekly warm-up for high school clarinetists in Virginia. That’s when she and Easley realized the model might work to reach more students and help band directors when schools opened virtually. 

“Over the summer, a lot of organizations started virtual series or virtual master classes [or] virtual music camps,” Valvo said. “But I didn’t see a lot for high school and middle school students. It was all geared towards college-level students or young professionals.” 

The virtual clinics helped Valvo and Easley bridge previous gaps in their program, such as reaching marching band students who aren’t typically available for the in-person workshops. And without the scheduling logistics, they could take on a single one-hour clinic, a follow-up visit, or even focus on a smaller group of students. They no longer had to worry about how to maximize a daylong visit, or strategically focus on one area of the state. 

“We’re going to go back to in person, but I also think virtual is here to stay, that we’re going to have a lot more hybrid experiences,”  Easley said. “Even on the college level, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of guest artists and things from across the country that we never would have been able to fund if they were trying to get here in person. It’s expanded the musical community in such a positive way that we never would have anticipated.”

Lead image: Still from Megan Siepka’s dance film A Cleansing in Three Acts.