By Ralph Barone Jr.
During the coronavirus pandemic, when businesses were just learning how to adapt to Covid life, one sector remained closed longer than others: theater. From local community theater to Broadway, all forms of stage entertainment were put on hold at the height of the pandemic, and only now are slowly coming back.
Hofstra University’s Drama Department, however, continued to put on productions in new and exciting ways following the initial shutdowns, while following Covid-19 protocols. Directors, actors and crew of the department had to get out of their comfort zones and undergo many changes to make this happen. In this Long Island Advocate podcast, reporter Ralph Barone Jr. tells us the full story of how Hofstra’s Drama Department was able to pull off innovative productions during a grueling pandemic.
CUT 1: Ambient Sound “Quiet Outside Sounds” (0:00–0:45) UNDERSCORE
Host: Silence. Peace and Quiet. Usually something people quite enjoy, especially coming home from a long, stressful day at work. People try to wind down, relax and clear their minds of any stressful thoughts. You could say for most people, silence is their best friend. But over a year of nothing but silence? For most people, it became their enemy. It’s no secret the coronavirus pandemic has impacted many people’s lives in unimaginable ways. It forced everybody to make extraordinary adjustments in their everyday lives, from schooling and social gatherings to shopping and going to work. It’s also no secret many businesses were impacted detrimentally in different ways. But while gradually most businesses opened back up as things got back to normal, there was one sector in the cultural industries that remained closed longer than others: theatre. From local community theatre to Broadway, COVID has caused many theatre companies to shut down for over a year, suffering in some cases, irreparable economic losses, not to mention the emotional hit that it had on actors, directors and crew. For a while, there seemed to be no hope for a return. But as I’m about to show you, theatre people are resilient, and found very unique ways to cope during this once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.
CUT 2A: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Rehearsal Notes to Actors” (0:11–0:30) — “…is the degree to which you guys want to communicate with each other on stage. You know, when we talk about pace, when we talk about volume, when we talk about those things, what we’re really talking about is your need to communicate and the urgency with which you need to connect to each other during the play.”
Host: This is Dr. Royston Coppenger, the chairman of Hofstra University’s Drama Department. He’s talking to the cast of Macbeth during a recent rehearsal for the show, one of the first fully-staged productions that have come to fruition on Hofstra’s campus since the pandemic began.
CUT 2B: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Rehearsal Notes to Actors” (0:30–0:57) — “…so that’s the thing your gonna want to work on strengthening. As we move into the space, we’re gonna be using more and more space on stage and your connection to each other and your need to speak to each other is what the audience is going to feel. So, the moments tonight, when you’re most urgently trying to communicate to one another, were some of the most exciting moments in the run.”
Host: The production of Macbeth was to celebrate the 73rd Annual Hofstra Shakespeare Festival, a production that I had the privilege of being a part of. But for many fans of theatre, it was to celebrate the return of live in-person theatre, along with some form of normalcy during this abnormal time. Hofstra’s drama department had to go through quite the journey to get to this point. Last year, while following COVID protocols, Dr. Coppenger decided to create new and inventive ways to showcase drama productions on campus. Ways that have never been done before in the history of the department.
CUT 3: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Inventive Drama Shows” (1:32–1:44) — “…in fall of 2020, we did our first show live in the Blackbox with masked actors and a socially-distanced audience, we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream outdoors and then everything else went online.”
Host: The Fall 2020 semester was very experimental to say the least. The different ways they presented their productions showed their versatility and ability to adapt to the global pandemic. But it still wasn’t clear how long this would last. Unfortunately, the virus would also adapt to a newer and deadlier strain, that would change the way Hofstra produced their shows for the foreseeable future. Dr. Coppenger had no choice but to find a way to work around it.
CUT 4: Dr. Royston Coppenger “The Decision” (2:05–2:22) — “When, you know, we were getting to December, and the news the delta variant was coming out and the vaccines still weren’t available, I just kinda made the call and I contact the drama faculty and I said, ‘Look guys, I really think we need to just be online next semester’ and everyone agreed.”
Host: It was a question theatre people across the country had to ask themselves, and find an answer to. How exactly do you completely transition all drama shows to a fully online format?
CUT 5: Dr. Royston Coppenger “How to Transition Online” (2:24–2:40) — “So we rushed, you know, to get the rights to go online, to figure out the platform we were going to use, to figure out the technology, and everybody pulled together and we learned a lot of things that we hope we don’t ever have to use again and, you know, we managed to pull it off.”
CUT 6A: Harrison Campbell “Online Acting Limitations” (2:04–2:14) — “I know, for me personally, I very much connect with people when I’m able to see them, you know, in front of me and speak to them and know that my words are being directly, you know, taken in by them.”
Host: Harrison Campbell is a junior drama major at Hofstra. He’s had experience with performing online and in-person. Right before the pandemic started, he was just wrapping up an in-person production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. At the height of the pandemic last year, he had to experience the rigorous online format when he was cast in Jean Racine’s Phaedra. He says the vocal and physical limitations he had to go through to adjust to online acting was quite a challenge.
CUT 6B: Harrison Campbell “Online Acting Limitations” (2:14–2:30, 1:17–1:36) — “…but, when you’re in an online format, so much is just acting to a camera and saying your words to this computer and you don’t really get that connection back. So, I definitely feel like there is a lot that’s lost just from the very fact that we’re speaking to a computer instead of to a person… it’s very stripped back in the sense that, like, there’s only so much you can do with your bodies, there’s only so much you can do with your voice, and as we were going throughout this process, it was not entirely, completely different, but it was very different to working on, you know, my gestures and my movements, you know, in a theatre versus on camera.”
CUT 7A: Avery Rudd “Historic Zoom Production” (0:20–0:23) — “We had just started our tech week, so it was our first time on the set.”
Host: Avery Rudd is another drama major at Hofstra that was forced to make these adjustments. Before the pandemic began, she was just preparing for a normal in-person production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke.
CUT 7B: Avery Rudd “Historic Zoom Production” (0:23–1:01) — “We were getting ready to do costumes, like, the next day and then, we found out that we were going to be sent home because of the virus and at that time, we didn’t know that it was going to be a permanent thing, sort of, for the rest of the semester. So, we were scrambling, trying to figure out what to do, and then, we had to move the show online and it was super last minute, but it was also the first Zoom production that Hofstra ever did. So, we ended up, sort of, kicking off Zoom theatre at the university, which was, you know, sad that the show has moved online, but sort of historical in a semi-sad way and it ended up being a wonderful experience.”
Host: A wonderful experience, maybe. But it wasn’t easy executing it, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, there are the recurring connection troubles that occurred over Zoom.
CUT 8A: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Online Connection Troubles” (3:45–3:50) — “One of the things is that, as you well know, Zoom is not the most stable platform in the world.”
Host: Once again, this is Hofstra Drama Department chairman Dr. Royston Coppenger.
CUT 8B: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Online Connection Troubles” (3:53–4:26) — “When I was directing Phaedra last spring, and most of those rehearsals were over Zoom, I was always dealing with the fact that if someone had an older computer or bad Wi-Fi in their apartment, it was going to be jumpy. In fact, we had one actor who performed from the Box Office, the House Manager’s Office in the Blackbox, because her Wi-Fi at home wasn’t good enough and another actor who borrowed a laptop from one of the ASM’s because her laptop wasn’t new enough to handle the software.”
Host: And then there’s the unfortunate unpredictability of online shows when you’re about to go live and things don’t go exactly as planned. Actor Avery Rudd recalls a nerve-racking story about her internet disconnecting just minutes before one of her online shows.
CUT 9: Avery Rudd “Internet Disconnect Story” (6:29–7:51) — “One of the most terrifying things that happened to me was during Working: The Musical. We were in the middle of the preshow orchestration, so the sound was playing and people were joining the chat room, or whatever where we were streaming it, and something happened. I don’t know if the power in my house shorted or maybe I hit something, or a cord, cause there were so many cords that we had to set up and make sure the Wi-Fi was connected to the Ethernet and make sure the lights were plugged in and I guess something happened and the whole cord disconnected from my computer. So we’re about to start the show in three minutes and I lose all of my Wi-Fi, my lights unplugged and my mic is off, and so I freaked out and I don’t remember ever being that scared for anything ever, and I had the first line, or like the second line in the show. So that would have really derailed us if I couldn’t get back on and also it, like, messes up the layout because we had to program all of our Zoom boxes. There are creative ways where you can move the boxes around and change the backgrounds and stuff and if one person drops out of the Zoom call, it totally messes up the whole arrangement. So that was a big problem, but luckily, we were able to fix it. I was very speedy and connected my internet and it was all okay, long story short, but I was terrified.”
Host: This experience was handled well by Avery because it was already a year after the first online projects were produced at the start of the pandemic. The production, Working: The Musical, had a unique combination of online acting and filmed musical numbers in the Blackbox Theatre with the actors wearing their masks. They had very little time to spend with their fellow castmates, impacting the chemistry greatly. Avery says the challenges of building chemistry in online shows are enormous and agrees with Harrison that it’s harder to connect with people online than in-person.
CUT 10: Avery Rudd “Online Chemistry Challenges” (3:23–4:18) — “So, definitely with cast bonding and character relationships and that sort of thing, it was definitely harder to feel connected. With Working: The Musical, we had our auditions in-person and maybe one or two choreo-rehearsals, but there was a larger disconnect between the cast because there is a big difference between being in-person and being able to catch up with people and then, just like, the Zoom fatigue of being on Zoom all day for classes, and then, we’re in Zoom for rehearsal and there’s just that distance between you that’s harder to overcome, I guess. But it also is fun to, you know, be able to use the chat features on Zoom and, like, figure out fun ways we could still interact and sort of develop that bond. But it’s an interesting thing having to create these relationships on computer screens.”
Host: For Harrison, all of these vocal and physical limitations caused by COVID created a huge impact on his mental health. The pandemic made it very hard for him to socialize.
CUT 11: Harrison Campbell “COVID Mental Impact” (4:09–4:39) — “I’m not gonna lie about it. It’s really hard for me personally just because it’s difficult to connect with people, like, on my own, but, like, the pandemic threw in this whole other layer of difficulty to talk to people, and to make friends, and just to try and have a normal life amidst all of this just absolute chaos, and I would say that like doing this show and coming back this semester has really been the thing that’s, like, brought me back together with everyone and allowed me to be such a good friend to all of these great people.”
Host: Even with COVID ruining the full theatre experience that he was missing, Harrison was able to find some positives throughout this whole ordeal. Like last year, when he was participating in tech weekend for Phaedra, which was fully online. He found it to be a lot easier and more relaxing than in-person tech weekend and took full advantage of it as well.
CUT 12: Harrison Campbell “Online Advantage” (2:27–3:10) — “Actually, one of my favorite parts about working on Phaedra was the tech process, which it’s kind of funny to say because if you ask any actor who’s been in a play, like, you know, ‘What’s the worst part of working on a play?’, it’s usually tech. It’s long hours, it’s a lot of standing around, and it’s a lot of waiting for things to happen, but because we were completely online and because we were, you know, in our own spaces, so much of Phaedra tech was, like, the designers and the director just talking on Zoom calls and me just sitting on my laptop doing homework or, like, watching something on Netflix and it was just, it was so comfortable and I never felt like, you know, like I was obligated to be there and like, ‘This sucks and I have to do it!’. It was just, like, everyone was just hanging out and having a good time and it felt so good to have that experience cause it’s so different from any regular tech I’ve been a part of.”
INSTRUMENTAL MUSICAL BED/TRANSITION (0:00–0:21) UNDERSCORE
Host: When it came to the rehearsal process, there was definitely an adjustment period. Dr. Coppenger says it took him a while to get used to the aesthetics of Zoom.
CUT 13: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Rehearsal Process and Changes” (4:55–5:19) — “For me, and I know the other directors had the same experience, yeah, we went into it thinking that the camera was going to be recording basically a staged show and then each of us, in our own way, figured out how to deal with the fact that the actors were performing for a camera, rather than the camera was capturing a staged scene.”
CUT 14: Avery Rudd “Comparing Online Acting to Film Acting” (4:18–4:48) — “It almost is sort of like film acting cause like acting wise, you do have to make your space smaller and scale back some of your reactions, like you would on a film set and it’s not entirely the same, but it did feel like we were practicing that very like up-close, sort of pulled-back and refined acting, and then you also had to get used to seeing your face in front of you when you were acting and just worrying about, you know, other technical things like I mentioned, you know, sound, lighting, that you would never have had to.”
Host: So clearly, creating theatre as a multi-camera process was a big challenge to overcome for the director, actors and everyone else involved in the production. But Avery says her biggest challenge was something else.
CUT 15: Avery Rudd “Biggest Challenge” (5:16–6:03) — “I think the most challenging thing about online shows was just getting, I guess, in the zone or as invested in it because, at the end of the day, you have your little computer world, but you look around, you know, you go offstage, you know, you move away from your computer camera or turn it off in your room, or you’re in your living room and there’s a sort of detachment, I guess, from the world of the show. That’s a little harder to overcome and it was sort of discouraging just because, you know, you’re not surrounded by the set. You don’t have the magic of the stage and backstage and the curtains. So, instead of, like, constantly being involved in that environment, even when you’re not onstage or in the middle of acting, you are very easily taken out of it.”
CUT 16: Ambient Sound “Construction Sounds” (0:25–1:00) UNDERSCORE
Host: That environment involves a lot of things, like the actors rehearsing their lines, the director giving out instructions, and of course, the crew building the set. The sounds of hammering nails and drilling screws were very rare in Hofstra’s construction workshop. Since the pandemic restricted in-person shows, there wasn’t a lot of sets to build, rendering these tools obsolete. Right before the pandemic began, the set for Summer and Smoke was almost completed. Once students were permanently sent home for the rest of the semester, they had to tear down the set. Jim Hart is the production manager and one of the technical directors of the drama department.
CUT 17A: Jim Hart “Tearing Down Set” (0:36–0:54) — “When the pandemic first hit and we were sent home, we actually had a stage, a show on stage, a set in progress on stage, and we weren’t really sure how long the pandemic, you know, how long it was all going to be for. So initially, we left the set there. We weren’t sure how long we were gonna be in hiding for.”
Host: Hart and the other technical director of the department, Tom McCoy, had to come up with creative ways to deal with the sudden pause in the action.
CUT 17B: Jim Hart “Tearing Down Set” (0:54–1:18) — “So, we actually worked on the set, Tom and I, without the students cause the students were all sent home, Tom and I worked on the set for another week after the pandemic hit. So, once we finally figured out that we would not be coming back, our gears shifted and we started taking the set down, but our reaction was one of dismay, for sure, just because we weren’t sure what the shows were gonna end up going to be.”
Host: One of the job descriptions for a technical director is to organize the set building, as well as the sound and lighting design. But since everything moved to online, Jim had to develop take-home kits and deliver them to and from students’ rooms, so they could set up their own lights and backgrounds for their respective shows.
CUT 18: Jim Hart “Take-Home Kits Delivery” (1:52–2:09, 2:17–2:35, 3:09–3:22) — “So we wanted, at least our design team wanted, everybody’s background to be the same and we wanted to have control over the lighting in each person’s room. So, what we did is we assembled several take-home kits that we could send home with the students in order to have their backgrounds look the same. For the ensuing three productions of that semester, we chose three different delivery methods and all of them involved sending stuff to peoples’ individual rooms, whether they were green screens, so that their Zoom calls could have green screens behind them and the images projected there-on could be controlled externally… and that involved a lot of logistics as well, which was just what my department ended up being. We ended up being sort of a shipping and receiving department for all of the gear and scenery and props that had to go to and from students’ rooms, to different locations…”
Host: Other than that hassle, his biggest challenge about the transition from in-person productions to online productions was the unpredictability of it and not knowing how it was going to turn out.
CUT 19: Jim Hart “Biggest Transitional Challenge” (5:12–5:31) — “Hands down the hardest was not knowing what it was gonna be like. Not knowing anything about what was going to be happening and the future of it all. Once we got into the groove of actually doing it, there wasn’t very much difficult about our job other than not knowing what the next one was going to be. So, just the act of not knowing was simply the hardest to bear.”
Host: While both actors, Harrison and Avery, were able to find some positives with the whole process of online productions, Jim on the other hand, could not disagree more. While he was impressed that Hofstra’s drama department was capable of successfully pulling off an online show, when it came to the tech side, he could not find anything positive.
CUT 20: Jim Hart “Nothing Positive” (6:54–7:21) — “In my line of work, as far as what we do, I didn’t see really any upside to this. I think that the idea that we can do these things is… well I guess it’s a useful hint or a useful knowledge to have that we can go remote and do theatre, well if you can call it theatre, in this way, but no. I can’t see a single upside to any of this.”
Host: As for Dr. Coppenger, when it comes to finding any upside to this online experience, he believes it was very beneficial for the student actors.
CUT 21: Dr. Royston Coppenger “Online Acting Benefits” (6:55–7:21) — “One of the things that I think we had to learn quickly, that I believe is going to continue in the future, is the idea of making your own content. Because we had talked about that as something we wished we taught the students more and then it turned out that we all had to learn to make content. We all had to learn to do some version of online content and so I think that’s a very valuable skill.”
Host: Give credit where credit is due. Dr. Coppenger not only was able to let student actors show off their talents and perform in different styles, but he did in a safe and healthy way.
CUT 22: Ambient Sound “Rehearsal Sounds” (3:30–3:51) UNDERSCORE
Host: With that being said, why continue to audition and perform these online shows, knowing that the pandemic would not allow a full theatre experience?
CUT 23: Harrison Campbell “Why Continue Online Shows” (4:56–5:27) — “Well, I would say that theatre is something that… it just never dies. Everyone says theatre is dying. It doesn’t. It never happens because there are passionate people who really care about it and want it to keep happening and even when there’s a pandemic in the way, like, we make it happen. We find a way to put theatre together and I would say that, you know, the whole audition process and stuff, I always just think of it as ‘it’s another opportunity to present myself and present what I’ve worked on as a student here, and as an actor and as an artist.’”
Host: Overall, Avery found a mixed bag of both the positives and negatives on her experience with online shows.
CUT 24: Avery Rudd “Overall Online Experience” (2:00–2:20, 2:48–3:03) — “A negative because, you know, it’s different doing it without sets and without the, I guess, same elaborate makeup that goes into, like, an actual stage production, but it did open up a whole new world of opportunities where people from all over the country, no matter where you were, could get together and wok on a theatrical production. So, though it presented a lot of challenges and, I mean I would have preferred and I feel like most people would have preferred to be in person, we were still able to make the most of it and have a rewarding experience, that up until this point, nobody was really able to have.”
Host: At the end of the day, whether it’s directing, acting or tech, all of them had to undergo some change to adapt to the wrath of COVID-19. Some aspects had to go through more change than others, but through hard work, dedication, perseverance and yes, maybe even a little bit of luck, they were still able to create unforgettable shows. Now that in-person productions are finally back at Hofstra, as long as people stay safe and healthy, everyone is hoping that in-person theatre is here to stay.
CUT 25: Avery Rudd “Return to In-Person” (8:34–8:47, 9:35–9:50) — “Obviously, I’m very excited that we’re starting to come back in-person and we’re taking the precautions to do it safely and create a safe environment for people to come and enjoy live theatre again. I’m super blessed… and I’m excited for us to continue rolling out the in-person shows and I’m very excited for the future of theatre now that everything is opening back up and people are, you know, rushing to go and have communal, in-person, live theatre events. So, it’s very promising!”
CUT 26: Harrison Campbell “Return to In-Person” (5:39–6:00) — “Well, if it is a sign for things to come, I’m hoping that it stays this way and it just keeps getting better and as we keep going, I’m just hoping that things get bigger, and we’re able to have full audiences back and, you know, I’m sure we’ll be masked for a good while after this, and that’s totally fine, as long as we get to have an audience, I think that’s what matters.”
Host: Reporting for WRHU and the Long Island Advocate, I’m Ralph Barone Jr.