The final theatre strike of the Fall Season: Technicians dismantling lights and scenery after the production run of the MFA Directing Candidate One-Acts. Photo courtesy of Chip Haas

“That first night we were in tech rehearsal for Marisol—when the lights went down and we started the process—it was the first time I’d felt normal since March. It didn’t matter that we were in masks or distanced. Those lights went down, the stage manager started calling cues, and even when the Director called out ‘hold,’ we finally felt like we were in control of something.”

That’s how Chip Haas, Technical Director, describes the first show that the School of Theatre pulled off on campus during the first months of the pandemic. Technical run throughs are often chaotic and painfully slow with fits and starts as the cast and crew work through their first rehearsal on stage with lights and scenery.  But this time the chaos was calming:

“It was emotional because we were back to doing what we do. That was all we needed.  Then, on opening night, we were like wow we’re really doing this!  And as each successive show happened that made us realize that all the planning and preparation and precautions worked.  It was such a validation for all of us.”

In the fall of 2020, the School of Theatre produced seven shows, which were mounted in Taylor Theatre and were open to limited audiences—50 people, then 25, and by the time the semester ended, only 10 were allowed in for in-person viewing. The performances were filmed then streamed on-demand to audiences everywhere.   

During the pandemic, many theatre companies transitioned to performing shows on Zoom and other similar platforms.  Haas says that just wouldn’t work for UNCG Theatre:

“We have a big BFA Design Tech program.  We needed to provide our students with opportunities for design assignments and to build sets. The productions are their labs.  Students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it by working on these productions. We chose to do theatre this way for our actors, too.  Theatre is an interactive art form.  We need our audience, even if it is limited.  Anytime you see a show, that’s a unique experience to that audience, and the actors feed off the audience energy.  Every decision we made about this season’s shows and how to do them was based on what’s best for the students.”  

Dani Vanasse is a sophomore working on a BFA in Drama with a concentration in Design and Technical Production and a focus in Scenic Design. She says she felt that support from Haas and other faculty and staff, and she often brags to family and friends about how she and her classmates were able to produce an entire season of shows:

“Before the semester began, I really didn’t think producing theatre in a pandemic was a plausible idea. It seemed impossible, especially with colleges all around us shutting down and sending their students home, and it even seemed like it would be a little disappointing. However, the faculty and staff and students have done a wonderful job producing theatre in a safe, fulfilling, and educational manner. There was not a single time where I felt unsafe while working on any of the productions, and I’ve learned that it’s possible to make do with whatever situation we face in theatre. Learning to incorporate social distancing and safety protocols into both designs and work spaces is something that really challenges your way of thinking, but in the end you are left with creative and functional results.”

Haas reports that the season was successful but not without challenges. Ticket revenue was lower this year compared to last, which meant production budgets were reduced significantly.  Recording shows meant added costs for equipment, and although the students ran the cameras, editing needed to be outsourced. (Haas is happy that they were able to use a company run by UNCG alumni for that.)  Lighting design was done on a repertory plot because all of the shows were in the same space and there wasn’t time in production schedules to completely change lights between shows. And then there was the question of whether to light for an audience or for the camera.  Haas says those challenges just meant that his students got more creative:

“I give full credit to our students.  Even with a repertory plot, the lighting designers found a way to give each show a specific look. Our sets never looked like we were working within budget restraints.  Our set designers, carpenters, and costume designers got creative with using and transforming stock pieces to make what they needed. Each show had an assistant stage manager to call the camera shots, allowing the stage manager to focus on calling the show cues. Our students never saw the limitations. They embraced the challenges. That’s a completely different mindset.”

Vanasse says she’s been impressed by the pivot:

“I would say the most important thing I’ve learned at the School of Theatre so far is how to quickly adjust and accommodate any obstacles we may face during the production process.

Directors have also been very creative with blocking shows and keeping actors apart from each other. I think the most memorable example of this would be in last semester’s production of Marisol, where the ensemble would speak blocking notes that required physical contact out loud as if they were lines, while the actors would perform the movements six feet apart. I feel like everyone in the School of Theatre desperately wants to be able to continue producing theatre, so we’re all doing our very best to be safe and responsible.”

For Haas, continuing to produce theatre at UNCG will result in more theatre professionals in the fields of Design and Technical Production”

“We’ve got the largest program in the state, outside of UNC’s School of the Arts, with a diverse group of concentrations. And you need that to produce good theatre. Theatre is like an iceberg—the cast is just the tip. Below the surface of the water are the people doing the design and technical production. At the School of Theatre, the cast may only be 10 people, but the crew is going to be anywhere from 30 to 40.”

Haas believes his program’s strong suit is that the shows are student-focused:

“What our majors are going to get is opportunity to do the work.  What they are not going to get is to be thrown in over their heads. They’re going to work their way up the ladder.  They’re going to have to earn the opportunities.  We’re not going to just hand them to you.  The most important thing we teach is work ethic, and because of that, our alumni have an advantage when it comes to getting jobs.”