Virtual theater, the rehearsals: Character development and technology adjustments both take center stage

This is the second installment in a GVNext series following the virtual production of 'The Revolutionists'

The scene from a play set during the French Revolution called for dramatic dialogue, which student Anna Compton delivered with verve while alone in a small Haas Center for Performing Arts room, her image seen through a box on a computer screen.

And then, right in character, she both ad-libbed and delivered a mea culpa as she bent down: “My bench needs to be over here.”

Laughter ensued from the rest of the cast and production team for the virtual production of “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson, which will run in November. It was laughter that is a natural extension of the camaraderie during a production, but it also was imbued with an extra layer of understanding about the unique challenges this group is facing in its presentation.

Students and cast members Compton, Evie Shadoff, Tay Terry and Madison Williams are navigating performances before cameras in individual rooms and without stage hands to help with props and costumes. And of course, those are only some of the adjustments to work through during a rehearsal several weeks before the first performance that normally would focus on character development and other acting elements, said Karen Libman, professor of theater and the production’s director.

An actor performing.
Tay Terry performs her play rehearsal in front of a webcam and green screen for the production of "The Revolutionists." Terry is playing the role of Marie Antoinette.
An actor performing.
Madison Williams performs during rehearsal in the room designated for her. Williams is playing the role of Marianne Angelle.

“Normally, we add the technical elements a week out, so the actors are all juggling these additional things on top of something that is challenging,” Libman said.

Indeed, they addressed concerns about buzzing, echoing microphones, cameras not showing what they expected and the limits of streaming. They needed a 20-minute period to address some technical issues.

But what is also evident is the intensive work that has gone into providing a presentation that shows actors who are working alone in a 6-foot “playable” area with a green screen, while on camera still conversing and reacting as if they’re together. For instance, in one scene a character appears to seamlessly hand an object to another.

From her vantage point, Libman gives blocking instructions through the computer, reminding the actors of where a mark is or that one actor had done something -- blown a kiss -- that required a reaction from the other character in that scene.

An actor during rehearsal.
The setup for Anna Compton, who is playing the role of Olympe de Gouges.
An actor holding a book of lines.
"The Revolutionists" which is set during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, is described as a "girl-powered comedy."

Terry, one of the actors, said her work involves not only memorizing lines but also occasionally the timing of how she would normally react, without looking at the camera.

The process is an adjustment, said Terry, a psychology major with a theater minor who is drawn to comedic roles. “Acting is a lot of feeding off each other and the audience,” she said. “When you’re acting into a mirror, it’s hard when you don’t get that feedback from people laughing if you do something funny.”

Those challenges only add to the learning experience and the growth from being pushed, said Terry, who also noted some advantages to the virtual format.

“Sometimes when standing before people you can get in your own head, but sometimes in your own space there is a level of comfort,” she said.

Actors are seen on a laptop during play rehearsal in front of a webcam and green screen for the upcoming production of "The Revolutionists." The teacup is a prop used in the play.
Actors are seen on a laptop during rehearsal. The teacup is a prop used in the play.

Optimizing that limited space is a key consideration, said another actor, Williams, who is a theater major. She has a particularly emotional scene, for which she has tailored her reaction to match the smaller space; she said on a stage, she would use more room to portray the anguish of a woman experiencing a devastating loss.

Williams said even with the unique challenges -- "You'll have a high-intensity scene where you're going really hard and then all of the sudden the computer crashes" -- she relishes the chance to tell this story that is solely from the perspectives of women. And she is proud to be part of the resilience of the theater world.

"I like the fact that we're showing the world that theater can exist in a global pandemic," she said. "It's great that we can convert something that was supposed to be on stage into something that is no longer on stage."

How to watch "The Revolutionists"

The livestream performances will be held Nov. 9, Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. You can find information on how to purchase access here.


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