Georgia College Theatre forges ahead, against all odds

Georgia College Theatre forges ahead, against all odds

I n many places, the performing arts have shut down—snuffed out, it seems, by a virus. 

Even Broadway is closed. Stages are dark. Actors can’t rehearse safely together. They can’t perform in front of live audiences. Big-name plays can’t be performed, because royalties exclude permission for virtual acting. Tickets can’t be sold for locally-scripted productions that are largely experimental. Going online is costly, too, requiring specialized video equipment and training. 

These challenges seem insurmountable.

It’s mind blowing, and it’s been a lot of work, but I think it’s going to be very rewarding.
– Dr. Karen Berman
Dr. Karen Berman, like many theatre chairs this summer, faced these same obstacles. But—with typical gutsy grit—she forged ahead. 

“I wasn’t going to let COVID deter us,” Berman said. “We decided we would go for a virtual season, which basically means we’re either livestreaming a performance or pre-taping and creating film for the very first time in our shows.” 

“It’s mind blowing, and it’s been a lot of work,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be very rewarding.”

Theatre major Stephanie Telon-Perez rehearsing.
Theatre major Stephanie Telon-Perez rehearsing.
At first, Berman feared student reaction. Her faculty was “devastated,” when award-winning hits like “Little Shop of Horrors” got canceled. They had researched and planned since late winter, putting their own personal concepts into shows. It all went into the trash. 

And, in two weeks, a bold new season emerged. 

It’s filled with original scripts and music by faculty, students and community members—a variety of ‘what can we try’ moments. The president, provost and dean provided Theatre and Music with $20,000 each to buy new video cameras, lighting and sound equipment that enhance Zoom productions. Software programs were purchased, as were kits for students to use from home. Keith Bergeron, assistant director of Production Services, agreed to train students on equipment in personal tutoring sessions.  

Alumnus Sam Wilson uses a ringlight during rehearsals with theatre and music double major Sophia Clark. (Her mask was briefly removed for photo only.)
Alumnus Sam Wilson uses a ringlight during rehearsals with theatre and music double major Sophia Clark. (Her mask was briefly removed for photo only.)

Every action and line in a play is filmed individually. Actors perform alone, usually in makeshift studios on campus or at home. Each clip is painstakingly pieced together by two recent graduates with certificates from the Georgia Film Academy, Harlee Pope and Jeremy Colwell, as well as other film studies graduates. 

But new problems lay ahead. 

This is scary for me. I’m way out of my comfort zone here. But it’s also exciting. We’re discovering the problems as we go. We’re brand new to this. We’re hitting all the bumps in the road, and we’re facing them one at a time. We’re trailblazing.
– Dr. Berman
Theatre’s first production— “Zoom [OUT]: An Experiment in Production” by former professor and Blackbird owner Iona Sun Holder—had to be re-filmed halfway through because of sound issues. Then, computers didn’t have enough gigabytes. It took hours to download one minute of film. There was no money for costumes or to hire drama coaches and compensate guest artists. Theatre lost $40,000 last spring when campus closed and shows were canceled. They lost another $40,000 in revenue from community dance classes. Since all productions this season are free, Berman said, “donations will be more important than ever.”

“This is scary for me. I’m way out of my comfort zone here. But it’s also exciting,” she said. “We’re discovering the problems as we go. We’re brand new to this. We’re hitting all the bumps in the road, and we’re facing them one at a time. We’re trailblazing.” 

“Zoom [OUT]” portrays student pandemic experiences and how people connect during isolation. The film premiered outdoors this month on a 40-foot screen at Central State Hospital. Faculty and students watched, social distancing from their cars. The film is now available for public viewing on YouTube at www.GCGivingVoice.com.

This truly inspires me to continue in theatre, no matter what obstacles I face.
– Claire Hemenway
Senior theatre major Claire Hemenway of Peachtree City acted in the play. At the beginning of the academic year, she wrote a letter expressing what Berman said “encapsulates the feelings of this new world.” She acknowledged being upset at first, hearing of plans for online theatre. Despite the season not being what she originally expected, however, Hemenway said she’s “having an amazing experience.” She expressed pride that Georgia College didn’t simply quit but continued to see possibilities and “make art.”

“I’m not going to lie. I was devasted and confused at first. I’m sure other faculty and students were, as well,” Hemenway wrote. “But ... I am genuinely honored to be part of a program that is actively deciding to be a part of history. We are a part of redefining performing arts in a pandemic. Not many people get to say that!”

“This truly inspires me to continue in theatre, no matter what obstacles I face,” she added.

Fall programming is a daring blend of virtual acting on film and livestream. FaceTime is being used as a platform, as well. The only onstage performance is an upcoming children’s play, “Lions in Illyria,” based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that utilizes animal masks. It will be livestreamed online to audiences.

Sophia Clark during rehearsals for "Giving Voice," which premieres mid-November.
Sophia Clark during rehearsals for "Giving Voice," which premieres mid-November.

Izzy Lee rehearsing for "Giving Voice."
Izzy Lee rehearsing for "Giving Voice."
The big musical this fall is locally scripted with gospel music and Hip Hop. “Giving Voice” is about the Black Lives Matter movement and premieres original songs by two Georgia College students and Raymond Jackson, a musician for Beulahland Bible Church in Macon. Everyone on the 19-member cast and crew wrote their own scripts, based on personal experience. The play includes praise dancing, slam poetry, rap and monologues. Rehearsals were on Zoom—no easy feat, Berman said, because of time lapses. Each voice was recorded individually in a studio setting. All singing parts will be edited together for cohesion. 

“We have to capture them visually, too, singing in sync from individual boxes on Zoom. It’s madness,” Berman said.
 
Despite the challenges, Theatre is showcasing a complete season. “The Nutcracker” will be modified and filmed in pieces, several dancers at a time. Student capstones will be made, including one about immigrants. Ten-minute original plays by two alumni are also being created and shown on YouTube.

We're doing something important here. Everyone's feeling it.
– Dr. Berman
Through it all, students are learning more than ever before—like senior theatre major Fran Smith of Stone Mountain, who studied how to add special effects and backstage scenes by computer. She’s developing 3D designs to incorporate into film. 

“We’re giving our students new skills,” Berman said. “I wrote the students in the summer and said, ‘We’re going to make you all film stars. We’re going to teach you how to produce films, which is just going to increase your toolkit as you go out into the real world.’”

"We're doing something important here," she added. "Everyone's feeling it."

(At top: masks were briefly removed for photography purposes only. Normal Theatre protocols are strict regarding mask wearing, social distancing and cleaning of equipment.)