The history of theatre spans thousands of years, and while its demise has often been predicted, it lives on today. The pandemic launched the longest shutdown in the history of theatre when Broadway closed its doors on March 12, 2020. Theatres worldwide followed suit and have not opened since, including here at the University of Evansville. Though there are not live productions in theatres, many artists continue to live out their dreams through the virtual stage.
“We pride ourselves on following industry standards. So, we asked ourselves what opportunities we had to do things differently while keeping the theatre closed,” Amelia McClain, assistant professor of theatre performance, said. A normal year for UE’s theatre department consists of six productions: three in the Shanklin Theatre and three in the May Studio Theatre. Along with the shows are in-person classes, workshops and practicums. Amid the pandemic this year, the department has turned to Zoom for many different activities.
“During the fall semester, we took the money we usually spend on productions and hired guest artists instead. This gave students access to industry professionals they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with if Broadway were up and running,” Sharla Cowden, managing director and head of theatre management, said.
“An actor from Hamilton conducted a workshop two weekends in a row. He had us sing and work with him. One of the many perks of being in theatre,” Jordan Williams, a senior theatre performance major, said.
Productions are the focal point of theatre and involve every student and specialized department. Whether a student is an actor, master electrician, costume designer, stage manager or usher – they all play a part in ensuring the show goes on. This school year, UE Theatre continued to perform plays through a variety of virtual formats, proving that the adage holds true even in a pandemic.
While a virtual performance might seem less intimidating with an at-home audience, it can increase the visibility of important but usually unseen roles like technical support. Nick McCulloch, senior theatre design and technology major, had to get creative with his work this year as the technical director for the student Cabaret series, which consisted of pre-recorded shows and isolated performances. “I was in charge of making sure the viewers could see and hear those performing as well as switching the cameras during the production,” McCulloch said.
Luckily at UE, theatre students acclimate quickly once they arrive, and some underclassmen were able to get a “normal” experience before the pandemic. Jimmy Guest, a sophomore theatre studies major, was an assistant stage manager for a play, assistant director of a stage reading and actor in a play during his first year at UE. “I had a lot of mixed experiences, but at least we got to do it in person,” Guest said about his time acting in Violet. He misses being in the same room with his peers and in a theatre with an audience.
This pandemic, however, has not stopped the creativity and determination of UE students. One outlet was a series of six student-directed productions called Zoombox. UE Theatre has also partnered with Play On! Shakespeare to present three productions directed by virtual artists-in-residence.
“Theatre is important and different from television. It is a communal experience and, after so much isolation, a feeling of togetherness is crucial,” McClain said. But despite McClain’s words and the historical resilience of theatre, the industry may still face challenges that outlast the pandemic.
“Patrons have learned to live without theatre. We develop habits faster than we realize. But as a marketer, my first job is to get people off the couch and into the theater,” Cowden said. Upon returning to campus this spring, she placed a sign in front of Hyde Hall that reads, “It’s just an intermission!”.
Cowden’s sign is much like a ghost light, a symbol of hope and longstanding superstition in theatrical circles. Legend has it that the ghosts of past actors and their characters continue to haunt the theatres where they once performed, and it’s become tradition to leave a light on for them in the theatre at night.
“[Ghost lights] give me hope and remind me that theatre always comes back, no matter the challenge. It may look different, but it always comes back,” Williams said