Theatre finds ways to survive

Written by: Alex budzynski
Newswire Photo by Desmond Fischer

For the foreseeable future, Xavier Theatre has modified the majority of its plans to accommodate Xavier’s COVID-19 guidelines. 

The most impactful of these changes is the postponement of the department’s eight mainstage productions. Headlining this season were supposed to be Twelfth Night, Mamma Mia and American Idiot, all of which have been delayed until further notice.   

In place of these performances, the program is designing a fringe festival entitled “A Xavier Theatre New Works Festival.” It will feature 10 original performances entirely developed, written, directed, produced and filmed by students.

The 80-person department has been split up into mini troupes of actors, producers, stage managers and directors who are being mentored by a professional in the theater industry. With a mixture of online and in-person rehearsals, each group will work collaboratively to create its original piece that will be showcased at the end of the semester.   

This decision was reached by the Xavier Theatre Steering Committee. Comprised of students and theatre professionals, this group has met weekly since April in order to guide the program through these difficult conversations. 

Theatre Program Director Stephen Skiles, who headed the Steering Committee, is optimistic about the opportunity these projects offer and the potential for these performances. 

“Although I believe all of our students would rather be working on the shows we had planned, this project is giving us the chance to look at things differently and to learn some new skills,” he said. “I also think it’s important to let our students tell their stories, especially in this moment… and I’m excited for what they create.”

Another place the department is adapting is in the classroom. While certain lecture-based courses such as Directing or Theatre History are easily transferable to an online format, others could not as easily be transferred to the digital world. 

Senior theatre major Kelsey Schwarber praised the innovative ways her hands-on classes have been adapted thus far.

For her Stagecraft class  — a course that typically requires students to build set pieces and navigate a show behind the scenes — she recalled how her instructor, Joe Leonard, used his phone as a makeshift GoPro. With his phone positioned on his forehead, he was able to show the class what he was doing in the scene shop and walk across the catwalks to point out certain features of the theater.  

Schwarber went on to applaud the ingenuity and malleability of the department and its students during this time. 

“The beauty of studying theatre has taught me and all my colleagues the gift of adaptability,” she said. “For anybody who works in performing arts… the gig is being adaptable.” 

Junior theater major Liz Apollonio explained how she has begun looking into alternative avenues for her skillset,  since most professional theaters are currently shut down.

“Beyond academia, it’s being able to think of what else can I do with this degree,” she said. “(Stephen and Joe) are preparing us for a Zoom-dominated entertainment industry (and) giving us the skills we need to work collaboratively in a remote world.” 

Skiles also explained how it is heartbreaking to see what’s happening to the performing arts community.

“We are in somewhat of a holding pattern when it comes to producing ‘normal’ theatrical productions. And that is difficult on us all in the program, especially the students,” Skiles said. 

Junior theatre major Peyton Wright has begun exploring alternatives to a career in theatre, but also talked about how the arts is a part of her identity that she is determined to keep that alive. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop performing,” Wright said. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for an outlet to be creative.” 

Despite the disappointments elicited by COVID-19, Skiles also sensed resiliency within his students.   

“I think they are sad because they love something so much that they aren’t able to do right now,” he explained “And even though that pain is tough, it’s a blessing… It means we care. It means that we love something.”

With the hopes of returning to a sense of normalcy, Apollonio explained how students in the department are more determined than ever to stop the spread. 

“We’re all invested in wearing masks and not getting together and practicing social distancing because our industry relies on crowds of people,” she said.

With the same sentiment, Skiles described how there is an underlying need for the performing arts more than ever before.

“We are facing some difficult situations in our world,” he said. “We need understanding and entertainment now, maybe more than we have in a long time.”

Wright concluded with a unique historical insight. 

“If Elizabethan theatre didn’t go down during the bubonic plague, then I think modern theater can hold its own amongst the coronavirus,” she commented.