Making theater together again: Four creators reflect
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Wednesday, July 21, 2021
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Around the country, theater-makers are resuming live, in-person performances. Since the spring, we’ve received numerous updates from UMass Theater-affiliated artists who are part of that trend: Prof. Amy Altadonna is sound designing for Shakespeare & Co.; grad student Rudy Ramirez directed a piece for their theater company in Austin, Tx; Prof. Elisa Gonzales traveled to California to work on a live staged reading of the piece she’ll be performing in our department next spring, just to name a couple of examples. But going back to in-person isn’t just going back to business as usual — living and working through a pandemic has affected theatermakers’ work.
We contacted four local theater-makers to ask them what it’s like right now, for better and for worse:
Lara Dubin ‘99G has returned to her role as the Resident Lighting Designer at Chester Theatre Company, which is presenting its work in a tent at Hancock Shaker Village this year. She’s worked with them since 2001. (She also works with several UMass Theater folks: alums James McNamara (sound design), Tom Kelleher (production manager/master electrician), Isaac Bayne (electrician), and Jordan Mitchell (electrician), as well as student Sena Yacteen (artistic/admin intern).)
Assistant Professor of Scenic Design Anya Klepikov conceived and visually designed a piece for our Rights of Spring Festival and has resumed her professional design work; she makes her design debut with Gloucester Theatre Company and the Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble this summer.
Jen Onopa ‘18G and Claudia Nolan ‘18G are part of the Re/Emergence Collective, a group of theatermakers who had current or past affiliation with UMass Theater and have worked together in various configurations over the past five years. Funded in part by a $12,000-grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts, at Park Hill Orchards in June, the group presented Re/Emergence, an outdoor, original work described as “a post-apocalyptic performance that examines grief, initiation, envisioning, and healing as a community after a year of unprecedented upheaval.”
We asked them all to answer questions about their back-to-in-person experiences; their answers are below:
What has it been like to go back to in-person work?
Dubin: It has been fabulous to be back in the same room with the full team. For me there has always been this creative energy in the air that comes alive when all members of the cast and team are present. This was much harder to feel via a Zoom meeting or online recording. After such a long break away, experiencing it once again is akin to touching a live current – it is humming and crackling with inspiration just waiting for me to tap into.
Onopa: I was so happy to go back to in-person teaching because remote teaching and learning was becoming really difficult. I teach theater to students in grades 7-12, and it was so refreshing to get back to communicating in real time and space.
Did you do any online production work?
Nolan: We did a lot of our pre-production dramaturgy (online), as well as scenic and costume design online in our collaborations, and the first rehearsal, which was a bizarre experience. The stage manager also did an amazing job of filming a lot of rehearsals so that those of us who live further away our couldn’t attend could still get a sense of much of what was happening “in the room” too.
Klepikov: It's kind of surprising, but our long predicament has benefitted the theater-making process. Before the pandemic we all had to work remotely already, since oftentimes the gigs are not in the town where you live, and the theater can't afford to fly you down there for every meeting. I remember these horrible meetings that everyone dreaded where the theater staff was in the room together, while the designers were on a telephone conference call. You could barely hear people, because of the inferior quality of the conference call and the physical mic never being close enough to the person that was speaking. These meetings were so technologically compromised, that it was difficult to communicate, let alone feel like you're part of the team or vibing together. Now, we just zoom in from different places, and can see and hear each other well, and there is clear communication, and even a sense of community across the distance.
Are you still taking COVID precautions?
Dubin: Yes, following current Equity rules – proof of vaccination, weekly covid tests, masks on when inside with actors and during tech when actors and stage management are in the room. Also, instead of performing inside in the Chester Town Hall Theatre, Chester Theatre Company set up an arrangement with the Hancock Shaker Village to use their 60’x100’ event tent for outside performances all three of their productions this summer.
Was there anything where you found yourself rusty?
Dubin: Making sure my bag was packed with everything I might need during tech. At some point during the lockdown I decided to clean out the bag that I usually have all packed and ready to go for theatre work – going to rehearsals, focus, tech, etc. It took me a while to pull it all back together and get it organized again.
Is there any part of your creative work that you would say has been affected by your experiences (personal or work) during COVID?
Nolan: So much! I was thinking a lot about sustainable and holistic work-processes for art-making during grad school, but COVID just seemed to make all of that feel even so much more important: caring for the artists and audience as humans, as well as of producers and consumers of art. Our “slow theater” process took us over a year of meeting online, and even rehearsals were only 2-4 days a week, averaging about 3 hours per day except for tech week.
Klepikov: I am relying more on digital modeling than I did before the pandemic. While the digital images don't compare to a physical model in terms of creating a feeling of the space, they bring an incredible flexibility around considering different options easily and making changes from the point of view of the structure of the whole space. I want to be very clear that this is not an endorsement of digital at the expense of physical models! But I am definitely discovering more deeply the strengths of the digital in my personal practice, especially when resources are limited like in the case of a smaller company.
Dubin: After such a long break I feel more dedicated and excited to be working in live theatre and more sensitive to the subtleties of my craft. During the lockdown I tried to keep up my skills by taking advantage of webinars and keeping up to date with what was happening in the theatre community. But, while you can improve technical skills and knowledge on your own, lighting design needs the stage and the actors on the stage to truly practice and hone the craft.
What excited you most about the production you worked on this summer?
Onopa: I was most excited about the opportunity to practice producing outdoors, the way we continued to refine our processes of working collectively, and how our creative team put all of our energies into very clear intentions around the performance feeling like a healing and rejuvenating experience for our audiences. This experience was reflected back to us by both performers and audience members, and so despite the challenges of making the work, we felt successful.
Klepikov: I am really grateful to be working with an A-team of collaborators. We have to achieve the wild challenge of a super realistic set — a commercial restaurant kitchen on a stage outside – on very limited resources, but everyone, from the director and the designers to the staff is really engaged, generous, hard-working, and creative, so I am feeling very optimistic that we can pull it off. I also have the special gift of collaborating with a couple of old students as well as an old friend, so it feels like a multi-generational family in a way, and I plan on going to the beach after tech because it's by the water and there's no more 10 out of 12! :-)
Dubin: It’s in a tent! This is my first time designing a theatrical production under a white tent — a white tent with three sides fully open, and a tent pole in the middle of the stage. Blackouts are not possible and the matinee and evening performances each have their own lighting levels in response to the natural and ever shifting light levels of the sun. The lighting rig is very limited due to the fact that everything needs to be able to be loaded out after a Friday night performance so that the tent is all clear for a Saturday wedding and then loaded back in on Sunday morning in time for the Sunday matinee. It’s been an exciting challenge to have to simmer down all the grand lighting ideas into a simple design that will serve the needs of the show and yet still keep it beautiful and interesting.