EDITOR’s NOTE: In these distressing times, we need the arts more than ever, but the pandemic has wreaked havoc with performance and exhibition schedules. Over the past few weeks, BAMirror writer George Basler has been reporting on how local arts organizations are “Coping with COVID.”
By George Basler
Using the old-fashioned technology of radio and the new-fashioned technology of live streaming and Facebook, SUNY Broome’s theater and music programs are staying active during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the summer, six students took to the airwaves to present a radio play after the pandemic canceled their live performance of A Date with Fate, written by local playwright Laura Cunningham. With the aid of instructor Ed Evans and his communications department, the play was broadcast by the college’s radio station, The Hive.
Feedback was positive, Theater Director Katherine Bacon said. “We’re trying to keep active as much as possible for sanity reasons,” she noted. Moreover, “if we don’t do performances, we will lose students.”
Next month, SUNY Broome Theater will present its fall production in a virtual format. The play, Yours Truly, Jack Frost by Tim Kelly, is a holiday show designed for children seven to 10 years old. Plans call for the show to be live streamed the week of Dec. 14. Schools in the region will be able to watch the pre-recorded show free of charge. (For information, call 778-5191.)
“The cast is currently rehearsing — all online of course — and experiencing the challenges and opportunities offered by this new way to deliver a show,” Bacon said.
Musical ensembles such as the College Choir, Chamber Singers, Guitar Ensemble and Concert Band, also are continuing to meet, sometimes remotely and sometimes face-to-face, socially distanced.
In October, the SUNY Broome Music Association hosted its first “music jam” featuring solo and socially distanced ensemble performances. The performance is now posted on SUNY Broome Music Program’s Facebook page. A second “jam” is scheduled to debut at 3 p.m. Friday (Nov. 20). The plan is to post performances regularly throughout the academic year, faculty members said.
Brenda Dawe, chairperson of Music and Theater Arts Department and Coordinator of Music, said a virtual end-of the semester recital is being planned for mid-December, but details are still being worked out. Solo performances will definitely be on the program with students, in some cases, performing from their homes. Performances by ensembles will depend on how COVID numbers impact rehearsals.
While none of this is ideal, it is providing an outlet for students to perform during a difficult time, Bacon said. “We are committed to performing,” she noted.
The arrival of COVID-19 in March forced Binghamton University’s Theatre Department to cancel its production schedule for the spring. But there was no question that productions would resume this fall, even if they were in non-traditional forms.
The resumption was necessary because students must work on shows to meet the credit requirements for a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre degree, Kari Bayait, manager of marketing and promotions for the department, said.
Still, the department had to rethink how to offer learning opportunities. Instead of treading the boards at BU’s Watters Theater, student actors are performing on digital platforms to reach audiences they will never see in person.
In October, the theater program live streamed William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The play originally had been for the spring before COVID-19 led to its cancellation 10 days into rehearsal.
Most of the cast, even if they had graduated, returned for the fall production, directed by Tom Kremer, a professor of theater who has acted in numerous community productions over the years. They rehearsed on Zoom and performed from their residences via video feeds.
“In this environment, nobody knew what to expect. It was unprecedented,” Bayait said. Instead of performing on a traditional set, actors performed in separate boxes on the screen, with software creating specific background layouts for each panel. The approach meant the actors had to rely on facial movements and vocal inflections, much like film closeups, instead of body language. Lighting designers gave them equipment so they could control the lighting from their residences.
The production was live streamed on BU’s website using Open Broadcaster software. In the end, it came off well, despite a few glitches. “It was exciting to think about new ways to do our job,” Bayait said, adding students got a taste of what virtual productions may be like in the future.
Other BU shows, set for the fall, had to make changes as well. The musical Pippin became a classroom project, rather than as a mainstage production, Bayait said. While the show was a complete one, it could not be streamed to the general audiences because the rights for public streaming have not become available, she said.
Spring plays are in the planning stage. The department’s schedule calls for Everybody Live by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, to be live streamed in March. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith is on the books for May although rights are still pending.
Actors for the productions will be cast through virtual auditions. “We have no plans for in-person audiences,” Bayait said. As she noted, it has been an unprecedented year.
Meanwhile, dance students have been holding socially distanced rehearsals, including ones in parking lots, to prepare a Jazz Nutcracker that will be released in time for the holiday season, she said. The production will be streamed free-of-charge.
Although BAMirror was not able to interview anyone from the Binghamton University Department of Music, we confirmed that performances and lectures are being posted on the department’s Facebook page and website, music.binghamton.edu.