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Julia Vuolo plays Carryn in Warehouse Theatre Company's video production of Gidion's Knot. Actors took precautionary measures during the shoot.

The pandemic has forced university theater departments to lower their lights, close their doors and pivot from stage to computer screen. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, one of the most famous musicals in history, found great success when it bumped its theatrical release to the small screen instead, becoming the most-watched show out of all streaming service shows in July. But can the theater departments of Stephens College and MU do the same?

It was the opening night of MU Theatre’s Votes for Women back in March when Zoë Tyler, an MU senior majoring in theater, and her fellow cast members were told that the remaining performances were canceled due to COVID-19.

Since then, college theater in Columbia has seen many changes. The MU Theatre Department has produced original works So Near, So Far by Brett Kristofferson and All the Spaces by Murphy Ward and Kylee Compton. Both shows premiered virtually in July. In November, the department presented its 18th annual Life and Literature Performance Series, which included original and adapted works by MU students and faculty members. All of these productions were published or streamed online.

Technical difficulties

Before any show’s opening night, the cast and crew spends a week — called tech week — testing all the show’s production elements such as lighting, sound and costume changes. This time, for All The Spaces, Tyler says the actors had to be their own tech crew as they shot their parts themselves.

“We had equipment actually shipped to people’s houses or dropped off, and if they lived in Columbia, we provided a green screen, a microphone, a sound system for that microphone,” Tyler says. “We would test out the best camera they had, typically a cell phone, and we recorded those over Zoom.”

Singing over Zoom is something Tyler says she will never enjoy. “That stuff is not fun,” she says. The “stuff” includes going over 30 people’s lines individually. When there’s a mistake, they have to repeat it until it’s right.

“We’re just out here developing this new way of theater,” Tyler says. “Theater has to prove itself to be essential, and I think it is.”

Full house, empty seats

Now months into the pandemic, both MU Theatre and Stephens College’s theater program have transitioned to shooting performances on location with cameras while taking precautions. Julia Vuolo is a third-year acting student and chairwoman of Warehouse Theatre Company, the student-run production house at Stephens. She says her company’s shows this semester, such as Gidion’s Knot or Chili Shakes — in which actors eat hot chili peppers while reading Romeo and Juliet — have been difficult to produce but rewarding. Both shows even made a profit from their performances.

Yet, the many moments that make theater special are lost when actors have to perform in front of a camera. “I would say not having an audience to actually feed off of is much more difficult with film,” Vuolo says. “But it’s also very exciting because you have to find that energy from within yourself and know that you have that ability now, because you’ve done it.”

Silver linings to the silver screen

Tyler and Vuolo agree that virtual performances come with a range of benefits: There is no longer a limit on the number of tickets you can sell, you can watch from any location, and if you need to pause the show to make some more popcorn, you can do that, too.

“I think there is a place for what we’re doing even maybe post-pandemic, honestly,” Tyler says. “Although, of course, I’m always going to love theater as it was.”

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Vuolo says it has been more difficult performing without an audience, but still manages to find an upside in it: “It’s also very exciting because you have to find that energy from within yourself and know that you have that ability now, because you’ve done it.”

Brett Olson, an assistant professor of theater at Stephens College, says that another one of the positive things that came out of the pandemic is that it has taught students new skills such as self-taping, a practice that Olson says “is likely going to be how jobs are earned in the future in the performance industry.”

“It’s a very different process,” Vuolo says. “But we’re really fortunate to be able to learn through it and still be creating things, which is really awesome.”

To Tyler, the challenges brought about by the pandemic have helped prove her passion for theater. “You’re either going to be discouraged and do nothing,” she says. “Or you are going to rise to the occasion, and I’d like to think that’s what we did.”

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