Student theater orgs adapt to distanced drama

Above is a pre-pandemic Vassar student theater production. Live productions have become nearly impossible to execute safely due to COVID-19 precautions, leaving Vassar’s seven groups struggling to adapt. Helen Johnson/The Miscellany News.

Student theater is an integral part of campus life at Vassar. The sheer number of orgs that produce theater—seven—means that in some semesters, there is a show going up almost every weekend. The student theater world is a vibrant and busy community, and it is difficult to go through four years at Vassar without encountering it in some capacity.

Founded in 1865, just four years after the founding of the college, The Philaletheis Society is the oldest student theater group on campus and the oldest campus organization. In addition to The Philaletheis Society (often shortened to Philaletheis or just Phil), there are six other student theater orgs on campus. Future Waitstaff of America (FWA), Merely Players and Unbound are the other producing orgs, meaning they produce the shows proposed by individual students and hold auditions open to the student body. Idlewild Theatre Ensemble, Shakespeare Troupe and Woodshed Theatre Ensemble are the ensemble groups—they audition members to be a part of the group, and then the ensemble itself chooses, produces and acts in their shows. The proliferation of student theater shows every semester provides countless opportunities for students of various experience levels to direct, manage, produce or act in shows. Additionally, each org has its own focus on the type of theater it produces, ranging from classical plays to experimental productions to musical theater. 

Then came COVID-19. Multiple student theater shows had been in production last semester when students left campus for spring break. Because students were never able to return to campus, those shows were either finished in a digital, remote format that looked nothing like what the teams behind them had originally envisioned, or they never went up at all. This semester, returning students find themselves on a quarantined campus, where personal interaction is severely limited and every aspect of the performing  arts has been dramatically altered. Vassar theater as we knew it is simply not possible under the current conditions. 

This week I spoke with the president of The Philaletheis Society, Delaney Sears ’21; the president of FWA, Jacob Ettkin ’21; and the president of Merely Players, Bailey Hancharik ’22, about how their orgs have adapted to life in the pandemic.

In a normal semester, these orgs would be accepting proposals, holding auditions and producing full-length shows. Philaletheis normally produces anywhere from one to three shows in a semester, and by this time in October, production would be well under way. Philaletheis also usually puts on the 10-minute play festival in December, which takes place in the Rose Parlor. FWA usually produces one to two musicals each semester, and between seven and 10 special events. These can include cabarets, fundraisers, movie nights and karaoke nights, as well as events catered to students interested in developing or writing their own works. Merely Players has a regular programming of one full-length production a semester. None of this is happening this semester.

“We are living in a world in which either participating in or going to theater is an inherently dangerous task,” Ettkin said. He added that musical theater is even more dangerous, because singing spreads aerosols even faster and farther than speaking. For that reason, FWA is not producing any full-length or in-person shows this semester. Instead, they are focusing on a number of special events that Ettkin described as “high fun, low effort.” The goal is to have fun and build community without overwhelming its members. One of these events is Mystery Masquerade, which will be a virtual cabaret that explores the spooky side of musical theater. Ettkin said the cabaret will go live the day before Halloween.

Similarly to FWA, Philaletheis is not producing any full-length shows this semester. Sears noted that all the theater orgs received information from the Student Activities Resource Center (SARC) about how they could go about producing live theater, but it involved a long list of restrictions; for example, the presence of a “safety monitor.” They decided it wasn’t worth it. “Instead, we are not doing any plays or active theater. We’re focusing more on community building and theater-based events, as opposed to performing. At least in Phil, we didn’t want the risk of doing live theater and none of us feel strongly about virtual theater. So we’ve been focusing more on doing streamings, and doing things to keep the theater community alive and in conversation until we can actually do live theater again,” Sears said. Philaletheis has been using their budget to stream professional filmed plays that people can watch from their rooms. “It’s definitely been more about keeping the community alive and having community events as opposed to making a play,” Sears added.

Merely Players is one of the few orgs trying to produce some form of theater this semester. As Hancharik noted, “We knew that in-person performance was probably not going to be a practical thing, especially for student theater. The Drama department’s doing it, but it’s under very controlled circumstances and with a lot of supervision. So we kind of knew that that was going to be out of the question.” But that didn’t stop them from getting creative: Instead of live theater, Merely is producing a 1920s-style radio play of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Rehearsals are held over Zoom, and they intend to release the play in several installments over the course of the end of the semester, with the first installment tentatively scheduled for mid-November. Hancharik noted that recording the play is a lot of trial and error, since nobody involved in the show has experience using recording equipment. Even so, they are excited to be making something creative. “We got together and we were like, we still want to use this opportunity, because I think one of the good things that has come out of these circumstances is people have figured out ways to become a lot more innovative with theater and art in general,” Hancharik shared.

Still, there remains a sense of loss and sadness at not being able to make in-person theater. Hancharik explained the loss of community and relationship-building that happens when they produce a show: “Because Merely has a more specific type of theater that we do—it’s more restricted thematically by the fact that it’s all classical or classically inspired—it tends to appeal to a smaller group of people, but then those people who are involved are very passionate about it. We usually build a very tight-knit community around our productions.” She noted that, although they were trying to build that closeness with the cast of the radio play, it just isn’t the same.

Sears noted that it has been hard to stay focused and driven under the current circumstances. “Whenever we have a meeting, you can tell that everyone just doesn’t really have motivation to be there. And that’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because this isn’t what we signed up to do,” Sears said.

Ettkin said that he simply longs for actual theater. “I’m really, really just missing the idea of everyone, let’s gather in a rehearsal room, let’s make some art together. Our weekly meetings over Zoom bring me much joy, and it is so nice to see people’s faces and talk about theater, but I still miss the in-person experience a lot.” There are personal connections made and relationships built when you interact with people on stage, and this is lost, even for those making virtual theater. Sears echoed this sentiment, and noted that the entire theater world is experiencing this right now. “We are kind of a microcosm of the greater theater community. Until theater as a whole can come back, we’re going to be kind of floating in a limbo. As much as you can do virtual readings and Zoom readings, it’s never the same.”

There may also be some long-term effects for the student theater orgs if they are not able to produce in-person shows for an extended period of time. Sears expressed worry that the longer they are not able to make theater, the more students who have been involved in the theater-making process at Vassar will have graduated. “Depending on how long this goes on, if we’re not able to do live, in-person theater like we used to be able to for a few years, then nobody on campus will have seen how those processes work. Student theater will probably be very different, if it comes back at all.” She said that people learn theater by getting involved, and that Vassar student theater is very much a learning space where older students teach younger students various aspects of production like lighting, sound design and stage managing. Once they are able to return to in-person theater, there may be very few students on campus who have those skills.

But there may also be a positive side to the lull in student productions. Hancharik said, “If anything, [the pandemic is] just reinforcing our determination to produce something every semester. I kind of hope that, from an artistic standpoint, these limitations on what we can and can’t do right now will help us learn more ways in which we can be creative…We’re being forced to think outside the box, and it really shows if we can do something really unique now, certainly we can do some very unique things in normal circumstances.” This creativity could have a lasting impact on student theater and possibly expand approaches to theater making, even post-pandemic.

Ettkin also views this as a potential opportunity to make change in the Vassar student theater world. He said that the process of putting on a show is stressful, and the institutional support from the orgs isn’t always sufficient. “In some ways, I think it could be a really lovely opportunity to…make this a healthier system as a whole if we can do kind of a soft reset.” But he also recognized the potential for some aspects of student theater to fall through the cracks: “I think there’s going to be some identity loss as well, for sure.”

There is a lot of uncertainty as to what the future of student theater at Vassar will look like. Ettkin noted that, although everyone would love to go back to producing full-length shows as soon as possible, it might not be realistic. “We’re really trying to figure out what lines we need to take…to start making in-person theater again, in any form. On the one hand it’s really exciting, and I miss that form a lot. I’m also terrified at the thought that theater [will be] the reason that students on this campus have to leave. And I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

In the meantime, the orgs are doing what they can. Sears expressed feeling the loss acutely, since this is her last year at Vassar and she might not ever be able to produce a show as president of Philaletheis. “As seniors especially, it’s hard to be optimistic about it.” It’s not just the presidents of the orgs—senior actors, producers, and directors across campus are missing what might be their last opportunity for theater at Vassar. And theater makers of all class years are deprived of the close relationships formed between cast members, the opportunity to hone their craft, the rush of being on stage, and the chance to bring a script to life.

But there are optimistic sentiments as well. “I am viewing student theater right now as: I think whatever theater we can put together is an awesome opportunity,” Ettkin said. “It’s going to force people to get creative in ways that I think will be deeply rewarding and also deeply challenging.” Even though they are facing unprecedented circumstances and do not know the next time they will be able to produce in-person theater, Hancharik said, “We definitely will find a way to keep producing art. That’s not going to stop.”

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