When Baylor University theater graduate students Abigail Dillard and Emily Olson chose plays late last fall to direct as part of their degree requirements, little did they realize how those directing projects would change in the year ahead.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, however, turned all those well-laid plans on their collective head.
Plays chosen for a small cast to perform in the round in front of a live audience lost that audience, then the chance to rehearse and act together, due to coronavirus precautions. Set design, costuming and staging considerations made with an audience in mind turned to what locations would provide adequate space, ventilation and lighting for a camera. The stress of last-minute rehearsals was replaced by the stress of last-minute video editing and production.
Their efforts, and those of their casts and crews, go up for public viewing this weekend with streaming video presentations of “The Last Match,” directed by Dillard, and “The Revolutionists,” directed by Olson.
Rather than buying tickets for a live performance, viewers can buy tickets at baylor.edu/theatre/ calendar for the 7:30 p.m. shows of each production, streamed Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
For theater department chairwoman DeAnna Toten Beard, the novel streaming productions this weekend are the product of learning how to do theater in a world shaped by COVID-19.
Faced with the realization that theater in the usual sense — actors sharing a stage, in-person company collaborations, plays before audiences — isn’t possible under current COVID-19 safeguards, the department has pivoted to explore what will work. Theater in outdoor locations or captured by cameras makes up much of the fall productions.
Actors, directors and theater tech students are adapting to the new environment and can take the lessons learned into an altered theater world.
“These are the skills that are going to make them successful in the professional world,” she said. “That, and learning how to handle change.”
In her play “The Last Match,” playwright Anna Ziegler follows older American tennis player Tim (Calder Meis) as he faces up-and-coming Russian player Sergei (Connor Truitt) in the U.S. Open semifinals. In the course of their match, complete with flashbacks to Tim’s wife Mallory (Sara Beth Dowell) and Sergei’s girlfriend Galina (Brooke Matthews), they show that more than just a game is at stake, but reputations, legacies, relationships and lives as well.
Dillard, 26, who had recently left several years as a Kennedy Center intern and arts educator in Washington, D.C. area schools to start graduate studies at Baylor, resonated with the play’s examination of transition, life goals and impact.
“What do you do when you don’t pick up the racket the next day? What does it mean to have a legacy?” she said.
COVID-19 changed much of her work as director. Rehearsals were held online via Zoom. The play’s few scenes involving actors sharing the same space required COVID-19 tests with negative results, followed by a 48-hour self quarantine before the scene was filmed on Dillard’s iPhone.
Filming on location had new challenges for a director used to the controlled environment of a theater stage. Music from a nearby soccer team practice. Wind blowing actors’ hair and clothes. Natural lighting that changed with the sun and clouds.
What kept director and cast going on was a sense that “The Last Match” had a worthwhile message.
“The story meant something to us and we had something to tell,” she said.
For Olson, 35, Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” offered a winning combination of female characters, thoughtful content and cheeky humor. Gunderson puts four women from the French Revolution — Haitian activist and spy Marianne Angelle (Hannah Charles), assassin Charlotte Corday (Kenna Curry), playwright Olympe de Gouges (Peyton Wood) and Queen Marie-Antoinette (Macy Johnson) — in dialogue with one another.
“It was a way to look at these women as more than historical figures,” said Olson.
COVID-19 altered a play built on onstage interaction and the camera-friendly solution that Olson, a former high school theater teacher, devised involved putting each character in a portrait frame with conversations and interactions handled in part through editing.
Like “The Last Match,” indoor and outdoor scenes were filmed under controlled circumstances with creative substitutions for physical contact like handshakes and prop handling. The director and her actors found such challenges acceptable, though.
“It’s been great being able to keep creating art,” Olson said.
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