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All the web’s a stage: U of T campus theatre in the times of COVID-19

How troupes are adjusting to a largely online reality
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KRISTAL MENGUC/THE VARSITY
KRISTAL MENGUC/THE VARSITY

For participants and audiences alike, campus theatre is a staple of student life at the University of Toronto. As COVID-19 prevents large gatherings, troupes and thespians have been working to adapt their seasons to bring shows straight to our homes.

The show must go on

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, almost all campus theatre activities for the fall semester are online-only. Auditions are being conducted through the submission of self-tapes, video calls with the production team, or a combination of both. While rehearsals are largely being held over Zoom, the Trinity College Drama Society (TCDS) is holding some rehearsals in person.

“This means outdoor rehearsals at an off-campus location on private property, with all actors and crew socially distanced at all times, and everyone wearing masks,” Beatrice Freedman and Theo Iordache, co-presidents of the TCDS, wrote in an email to The Varsity. “Props and set pieces are being sanitized between each use, and a minimum number of people are called to any given rehearsal.”

All performances will be presented over Zoom or prerecorded to be streamed on opening night. Some troupes are considering using platforms like Eventbrite and Patreon to sell tickets, but many shows will be free to watch or allow the viewer to pay what they can. To accommodate, troupes are reducing production costs through measures such as presenting student-written shows and using props and costumes already in their storage closets.

Even as each troupe’s season begins, their plans for the winter semester remain characterized by contingency plans. “We’re coming up with plan A, B, and C,” St. Michael’s College (SMC) Troubadours Co-Executive Producer Nour Ramzi wrote in an email to The Varsity. “Plan A is to have these shows performed live, with a full audience. Plan B is to have the shows performed live with a partial audience, and a streaming link available to those who couldn’t or didn’t want to get tickets for the live option. Plan C would be to do it fully online.”

Similarly, the University College (UC) Follies has planned its winter shows so that they can be presented in multiple ways. The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) is aiming to perform its winter shows with the actors together in person with the hope of presenting it live to a limited audience.

All decisions are being made with everyone’s comfort and safety in mind. “We’ll be taking our cue from the university’s health guidelines, alongside of course rulings from the provincial and federal levels,” Freedman and Iordache wrote.

A look at centre stage

While troupes grapple with adapting their seasons to COVID-19, participants are also facing new challenges. “I find that a lot of the aspects of acting that come to me more naturally in standard rehearsal processes are more unfamiliar,” Lauren Kroell, a third-year student currently acting in the TCDS’ production of Julius Caesar, wrote in an email to The Varsity. “In general, I also find it a lot harder to get immersed in my character and rehearsal environment, meaning that I feel like my performances are less genuine than I’m used to them being.”

Physical distancing equally brings complications for those working behind the scenes who need to reinvent what it means to be backstage. “I do not even know how stage managing is going to work online,” Angelli McGuigan, a third-year student stage managing One Slow Summer for the SMC Troubadours this fall, said in an interview with The Varsity. “My duties are very up in the air.”

Moreover, COVID-19 restrictions massively impact one of the reasons many choose to participate in campus theatre: to make friends. “In the past, spending your time going to in-person rehearsals was of course primarily centered around the show itself, but was also a manner in which I made some of my closest friends at university,” Kroell wrote.

She admitted to being more hesitant than usual to participate in campus theatre this year. “While I have no doubt that the producers, directors, and creative teams behind these shows are going above and beyond to do what they can given the current circumstances, the uncertainty of what everything is going to look like going forward… is admittedly giving me pause,” Kroell wrote.

No longer waiting in the wings

Ever resourceful, the U of T theatre community has taken the setbacks of COVID-19 as an incentive to innovate. “We want this year to be all about pushing boundaries and questioning forms, so we are experimenting with many different performance styles,” UC Follies Executive Producers Sabrina Weinstein and Matilda Horton wrote in an email to The Varsity. For instance, the TCDS, the VCDS, and the UC Follies are presenting radio plays, and other shows will be edited together in film format.

Makayla Panico is a third-year student involved in the SMC Troubadours’ LUV, which was postponed in the spring and is now being adapted for virtual presentation. Panico emphasized in an email to The Varsity that “doing online theatre forces you to develop new skills and new ideas that cater to the virtual space.”

Moreover, digital theatre has revolutionized accessibility for those who would struggle to participate otherwise, such as commuters, low-income students, and those who are disabled.

“COVID-19 has forced many theater practitioners, fans, actors, etc. to take a hard look at all the barriers that the theater world has created,” Ramzi wrote. “COVID-19 impacted our season by making it a fraction more accessible, with the attempt of examining and removing those barriers.”

COVID-19 has challenged troupes, actors, and production teams to innovate their seasons to accommodate physical distancing protocols. However, this also means that U of T campus theatre, now more avant-garde than ever, is but a click away.