FAIRBORN — The Wright State campus is a stage, and all its theater students merely players, as the university’s theatre department presents its first “virtual musical,” streaming March 26-28.
The musical, “Theory of Relativity,” is the product of nearly a year of adaptation to the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. The production is the result of a massive creative effort, not only to portray the setting and characters, but for students and faculty to continue doing the work they love.
After shutting down last spring, the university’s Department of Theater, Dance and Motion Pictures has worked its way back up to hosting nearly the same number of plays, musicals, dance concerts, and film festivals that it would in a normal year. Many of these performances are vital to student learning, and the department has adapted to fill in the blanks.
Very few events are indoors. Some are online, some are outside, some are via drive-in. Students and faculty have already formulated several projects, in addition to two plays, two musicals, two dance concerts, the annual Big Lens Film Festival, and an outdoor parking lot fringe festival planned for the end of the term.
“Theory of Relativity” is one of two livestreamed productions. The other, “Fugitive Songs,” will be released at the end of the semester.
Directed and choreographed all over the campus, “Theory” was not filmed by a crew of cinematographers. Instead, the cast and crew filmed the show in the most accessible of ways, using their smartphones. Student and assistant director Kat Rodriguez led a “guerrilla film-making approach,” which according to department chair Joe Deer has been incredibly successful.
“As horrible has this coronavirus has been, it’s forced people to get creative in ways we haven’t had to before,” he said. “I’m so impressed with the ways people have come together this past year. It’s incredibly inspiring.”
James Dunlap, head of the audio program at the Wright State Theater department, worked with student designers to mix the sound. Audio was recorded individually or in small groups, and then mixed in studio.
The cast and crew filmed the show in locations all around campus, wearing masks and following COVID safety protocols, even for group sequences.
“The creative team was very imaginative in ways they kept people at safe distances. Sometimes they look closer, but it’s a trick of perspective, things like that,” Deer said.
Students were tested for COVID-19 throughout filming in a manner analogous to the university’s sports programs. No students tested positive during the course of the process, Deer said.
Directed by Greg Hellems, head of Wright State’s Musical Theatre program and music directed by R. Wade Russo, this is Wright State Theatre’s first filmed musical, and in many ways is a joyful return to meaningful work for the team.
“Finding a cinematic expression for ‘Theory’ has been an exciting opportunity,” Hellems said. “The show is unapologetically about recognizing the need for human relationships and the experience of making and losing those interactions. The lyrics have taken on a whole new meaning now that many of those connections have been disrupted by the real obstacles presented by COVID-19. For theatre artists, shooting a film has been a rewarding new challenge.”
Much has been made of the ways in which COVID-19 has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of Americans across the country. The themes of the musical, expressed through music, scenes, and monologues, demonstrate the necessary interconnectedness that has been thrown into focus in the last 13 months.
“Our students have had a terrible loss of connection to each other and their sense of closeness as a community, because these students are a very, very tight group,” Deer said. “They form relationships that will last throughout their lives as a result of production experiences.”
More so, production experiences in and of themselves are the core of the department’s academic operations.
“The production process is also the laboratory that we apply what they’ve learned in classes,” Deer said. “So to be able to come up with something that is close to the experiences we would have had in a typical year means that we can help fulfill their education.”
“Theory of Relativity” was the first chance for students and faculty to be back in rehearsal and performance since March 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was about finding ways to show what Deer calls the greatest strength of the profession.
“If there is any silver lining, I think that my faculty, staff and students have really demonstrated the most important lesson of building a life in the arts, and that is adaptability, flexibility and resilience,” he said.
Few industries have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic as much as the theater arts. The events industry, writ large, has enacted massive cuts and business adaptations to survive in a pandemic environment, potentially affecting young entertainers for years to come.
“What it has done to the event industry has been devastating,” Deer said. “Millions of people across the country who have lost their livelihoods for at least a year and a half. That means that many of them are going to leave their careers. Others are going to cut back profoundly. And for people who have a short lifespan in their career, like dancers and athletes, this is a life-changing event.”
For the student and faculty artists at Wright State, the past year of social distancing, increased digitization, and economic upheaval means that graduating seniors are now looking for jobs in an industry that has dramatically changed from when they arrived as freshmen.
“For our students, who are planning to launch their careers when they are in the best shape in their lives to do so, it’s a huge obstacle to do that when there’s no industry to go to,” Deer said.
For this reason, the adaptations the department has made to accommodate the digital world will likely serve students well into the future. Many have already started their own projects, creating content to bolster their portfolio and creative platform.
“Artists don’t spend their lives waiting for people to tell them what to do anymore,” Deer said. “The promise of the internet as a democratic space is probably more fulfilled for artists this year than ever in the past. I know that many of my students have already begun creating digital work, and there’s no question that they will continue to do so with a great deal of confidence, and the possibility of creating independent arts without needing permission from a big producing organization. And I love that.”
Regardless of what restrictions may be in place, the university is “absolutely” going to return to in person shows in the fall, Deer noted. Virtual shows, however, are here to stay.
“Six months is a long time,” he said. “But I am hopeful and enthusiastic about the idea of continuing to create virtual productions and to support students in their independent efforts. Because the more that we empower them to do this on their own, the better.”
Audiences can see “The Theory of Relativity” online at www.showtix4u.com and follow the simple prompts to purchase tickets for home viewing.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.