COVID-19 has drastically changed theater, but the Southern Theatre Department hopes this leads to a brighter future for student-performed plays.
During the winter, faculty and members of the Crescent Players, a student-run production organization, have been hard at work on Songs for a New World, a live production streaming March 4, 5, and 6 at 8 p.m., and March 6 at 2 p.m. It is the first virtual musical the department has ever produced. Reserve tickets to the production here.
The musical’s timely theme played a major role in its selection.
“It’s a show about making decisions and the power of choices,” said Larry Nye, show director and choreographer and professor of theatre. “It’s about a brighter future and has a positive message” – namely that people’s hopes and dreams will help light the way to a new world.
Nye has been a professor of theatre and dance at Southern for more than 20 years, directing and choreographing more than 20 musicals during his tenure, but said that navigating theater during a pandemic has been a learning experience for everyone.
“We did two productions in the fall,” Nye said. “First, Enemy of the People, as a radio drama. Then we did Sweat. That was recorded live then presented as video. This time it is all live streaming.”
According to Nye, the small cast in writer and composer Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World made it easier to produce safely.
“We chose this musical because it’s more manageable with Covid,” Nye said. “The show is mostly solo work. A large ensemble to sing and dance isn’t needed. We want everyone to feel safe.”
Characters range from a married woman looking back on the path she chose to a man who dreams of becoming a famous basketball player. There’s even a lonely Mrs. Claus, who reflects on her marriage and wonders if being alone for Christmas is worth it.
Nye put four performers onstage – masked and 25 feet apart – and four offstage on microphones. The onstage actors are veterans and newcomers Samhain Perez, Aaron White, Leah Herde, and Kori Ligon.
“We wanted to put eight on stage,” Nye said. “Unfortunately [Covid-19] limitations have meant some talented people haven’t been in show.”
It’s also meant that support roles, such as costume and set designers, have to be reimagined. The sound designers have had extra challenges with people socially distanced on stage. Theatre major Kat Duffner, ’22, said as the costume crew head, “sitting still” feels totally foreign.
“This is not at all my first performance,” Duffner said. “But it’s a lot different because I’m usually more involved in the process. Now it’s more like we give the actors their costumes and they do the rest, but there are no quick changes or handing a costume piece off to the actor. I miss it. I miss being an integrated part to the performance. This production, at least, feels a little more normal.”
Another bright spot is that performing during a pandemic has taught the actors to reach outside their comfort zones. Leah Herd, ‘21, a biology major, said she gained valuable experience from 2020 and 2021’s productions.
“I was in the fall productions,” Herd said. “Both were different. [For the radio production] we weren’t next to each other, and it was hard to draw off the energy of others, so I had to trust they were reacting to what I was too.” Performing for the radio also taught Herd how to use her voice more as an actor. “It was actually cool to see how I could use my voice to portray emotion as a character.”
For Songs for a New World Herd said while it was sometimes difficult to hear her fellow performers because of the spacing on stage and masks “jet out like a duck bill and make it hard to breathe,” she was “so excited” to be on stage with other people.
“I’m so glad we were able to find something as close to traditional theater as possible,” she said.
Nye, too, acknowledged that while the live streamed performance is a far cry from Footloose, which he originally intended on doing, students really enjoy performing and that is what helps inspire their acting, singing, and dancing.
“The performers are live, the musicians are live, the show is live,” he said. “It is alive. The performers are ‘of the moment’ as we like to say. Artists are resilient, and we have an inner drive and luckily we’ve been able to adapt to things using our creative juices. The theater artists present a unique artform that can transport the audience to a different place and time. This production has all the aspects of a musical except for the live audience.”
Nye is optimistic they’ll soon return, too, bringing their energy, clapping, and laughing.
“Theater will come back,” he said. Indeed, as the musical’s message imparts, a new world may just be around the corner.