By Natalie St. Denis
COVID-19 has hindered many events on campus. But in the case of theater, the show must go on.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a play by Oscar Wilde about two characters, Algernon and Jack Worthing. Jack creates a character for himself called Ernest whom he plays while in the city with the rich folk. But in the country, he goes by Jack. He starts to fall in love with a girl who knows him as Ernest. This story of mistaken identity is a classic play in the public domain.
The adaptation SUNY Plattsburgh decided to create demonstrated the big farce about mistaken identity and gender expression of male and female roles in society. The play was divided into three parts, each with a different student director who took a different direction with each act.
“We took a different direction with the adaptation that we’re doing, where we took out the gender bias that we’re having conversations about in today’s world. So it’s important to still have that conversation,” said student director, Caleb Eugley, who directed the first act.
The SUNY Plattsburgh adaptation was originally supposed to be performed last semester in-person, but COVID-19 forced the production team to come up with a new plan after already having rehearsed for a few weeks. The first couple weeks of this semester were spent trying to figure out this new plan. By the time they decided, there were only about two weeks before the first performance was to be broadcast on Zoom.
Grace Ewing, an actress in the first and second act, was the only freshman in the play. She participated in theater in high school and was used to having a few months of preparing for the productions.
Ewing also mentioned that getting to know the rest of the cast was different than usual.
“In rehearsals we’d all, like, get to know each other more and it was different because we were all over a screen,” Ewing said.
One of the bigger challenges among the cast was adapting to being in their own world when performing, no other cast members or audience surrounding them. Some of the cast members performed the first act in their own practice room on campus.
Mason Barber, the student director of the second act and also an actor in acts one and three, said this seclusion made it difficult from an actor’s standpoint.
“Acting, it was very weird because usually when you’re in a show and you’re onstage with other people, you give and receive energy. It’s like a give and a take, and your energy needed to be at one hundred percent whenever you were on camera because no one was there to interact with you,” Barber said.
Not only did the actors miss being surrounded by their fellow peers, not being able to see the audience was difficult too.
“There’s a rush when you’re acting, you know, because you’re on the stage, you see your audience, you engage the reaction,” Performing Arts Coordinator Dwayne Butchino said. “When you’re performing on Zoom, you don’t see anything. You only see each other.”
Barber said although this is the case, it makes you commit to the character more because you don’t have the ability to take applause from the audience. You just have to remain in character the whole time and hope they are reacting as you hoped.
Additionally, many members of the creative team were hindered by COVID-19, and they weren’t able to accomplish what they hoped to. For example, those who normally worked on set construction ended up taking on other roles like press and putting up posters around campus.
“It feels so off kilter being in my own room doing the show and not being in a costume, in my stage make-up with the light on me and the big set that we were gonna have,” Jill Chase, an actress in the show and an assistant costume designer said.
For Caleb Eugley’s act, he decided to give his actors suggestions of costumes to put together from their own closets. This was deemed the safest way to combat COVID-19. He explained how every time clothing was handed out to the cast members and then handed back it would have had to be quarantined. So if a costume was handed out to an actor and it didn’t fit they would have to hand it back and quarantine it before the costume designer could even begin to work on it. The timing of it all wouldn’t have worked efficiently with the allotted time.
Eugley also relied on the actors to create a neutral background in their personal area they performed in. He wanted to stray away from using online backgrounds, as he found them distracting.
All these adaptations and more relate back to original storytelling and theater. As Eugley puts it, “telling stories as bare as they can be.”
Despite all the modifications, the first performance Oct. 2 was a success, they said. Act one was portrayed as a professional stage reading of the script, almost like a conference call.
“It’s very commendable for someone to kind of break out of their comfort zone, or for example, a lot of the people in the production are upperclassmen who have had productions in the past be held in-person,” said Lindsey Connor, who watched the first act on Zoom.
Autumn Knight, another student who attended the virtual show, mentioned how she missed the intimate setting that an in-person show provides. But she enjoyed the adaptation of the play.
“It was again, a little different because it’s virtual, so like, I didn’t know, what to expect with the set up, but I really thought they did a good job,” Knight said.
The team hopes to see the same success in the other two virtual acts to come. The second act directed by Barber takes a more overtly dramatic approach and is very character driven, while also incorporating comedy. The final act of the production is directed by Jhada-Ann Walker, who portrayed her episode like a film.
The next act premieres on Zoom on Thursday at noon. The final act premieres Oct. 30 at noon. Students must register to watch. The link to register is in the Student Digest or on the Plattsburgh Theatre Department Facebook page. Each act is recorded and will be posted on YouTube until Dec. 11.
This was the first virtual performance done at SUNY Plattsburgh. This experience opens the door to the future possibilities of online theater.
“This is a bigger conversation of where is theater now going to go and how do we make that fully successful for people around the world because it is a worldwide conversation that’s happening right now,” said Erica Guay, who was the technical host during the Zoom performance.