Virtual theater, showtime: Behind-the-scenes team keeps 'ambitious' production on track

As stage manager for a production, Alex Coy is the glue. It's his job to be in the loop on everything to ensure the operation runs smoothly.

It's fair to say that mastering the technology required to present a virtual performance of "The Revolutionists" by Lauren Gunderson has at times caused Coy to become unglued.

The work is coming to fruition. The livestream performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 11 and 13. You can find information on how to purchase access here.


The command center for 'The Revolutionists'
Alex Coy works at the command center for 'The Revolutionists.'

Coy, a theater and English literature double major, is working for the first time with vMix software for live streaming. He has been learning it on the fly and dealing with its intricacies as he incorporates the technology into his central duty of managing the quality of the show production.

Overseeing a live production means remaining nimble, Coy said, and part of the beauty of live theater is that anything can happen. He embraces that. However, this level of technology means it can take longer to fix a problem than if something happened on stage.

"With the digital presentation, it's a lot more scary. There is a lot of planning because we don't want to look messy," Coy said. "While I am sometimes frustrated with the technology, I'm still enjoying the art that we're making. I'm very excited to show the art."

The production team member charged with developing the technological setup is Chris Mahlmann, the technical director for theater. One of his usual duties is capturing images from stage and projecting them. With this production, he is capturing images to place into a streaming service.

That process has more steps amid an "ambitious" plan to have the actors set up in separate rooms with green screens, he said. The biggest challenge is the chain to transmit images: Webcams to routers to servers to software.


The technology setup used by the actors

The technology setup for actors
The technology setup for actors

Besides maintaining connectivity and troubleshooting glitches in one of those transmission steps, tweaking the audio for the small space to reduce feedback and echoing is also necessary, he said. Most of the theater program's gear is meant for 50-foot-by-30-foot stages, not 12-foot-by-12-foot rooms, Mahlmann said.

"We're using audio for big, broad theater use in a studio environment, which usually requires more sensitive audio equipment," Mahlmann said.

Adjusting from a stage vantage point to that of a box on a computer screen also has taken some creativity from the costuming side, said Jill Hamilton, costume coordinator. She is taking into account how much of the costume is seen on camera and how the garments will read.

The fitting process first started with Zoom meetings with the actors measuring themselves from their homes as Hamilton gave direction on where to place the measuring tape.

"This has been total perseverance. We’ve met some challenges and still have some more to go," Hamilton said.

An actor clasps her hands
One of the big adjustments for costume creation is accounting for how the costumes read on a screen.

While Hamilton is a veteran of stage productions, this is the first at Grand Valley for Bella Gielniak, a first-year theater major. After auditioning, she was tapped to be the assistant director.

The role has means following the book to help actors with lines as well as keeping track of blocking, which in this situation means ensuring actors are looking or moving toward the right wall to appear that they are interacting, Gielniak said. She came up with a storyboard system to help with the blocking.

She also has had to learn the technology as Coy's backup and even has to be ready to step in for an actor if necessary.

Gielniak is excited for the opportunity to learn so many skills, including the unique capabilities she will have from working on a virtual production.

"One of the reasons I chose Grand Valley to go into the theater program was that I would be able to just jump into things," Gielniak said. "I'm very excited to jump on any project right from the get-go and it didn’t matter if it was virtual or not. I just wanted to do theater."