The show must go on(line): Theater department reimagines performance during pandemic

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The Drake Performance and Event Center houses the theater department at Ohio State. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

In stark contrast to actors in the past who have stepped onstage wearing comedy and tragedy theater masks, performers at Ohio State now find themselves reaching for the surgical variety.

As COVID-19 made its way across the globe and caused the university to shut down, the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Arts faced an uncertain future. Connor Graham, a lecturer in the department, said he and a group of students were deep into the process of creating a new show when the pandemic first struck. The show, “Once Upon The Oval,” never made it to the stage.

“We were unsure at the time what the fall was going to look like,” Graham said. “We all took a moment of pause to reflect on how we were going to move forward.”

Graham said he had been involved in creating a piece of devised theater about the opioid epidemic when the university began to shut down. However, his students refused to accept defeat.

Graham’s students worked around the limitations of the pandemic, creating a “theater-film hybrid” piece, he said. Instead of inviting a live audience to a theater, the students published it online.

“We were really able to expand our notion of what the work could be and what theater could mean in this moment,” Graham said.

Isabelle Johnston, a second-year in dance and former student of Graham’s, said her experience taking an acting class online was much harder than she expected.

“The hardest part was probably getting in the zone,” she said. “Because we were on a computer screen, it was really hard to feel invested in it.”

Johnston, who is also a musical theatre minor, said she was already nervous to take classes related to the field, but the pandemic brought out unforeseen complications, such as performing for an online audience and having to act at home while living with a roommate.

“No one feels confident when they are going into this field because they know it’s so temperamental and fragile, and it’s just difficult,” Johnston said, “But in this pandemic, not even being a professional yet, just taking a class, it was just so hard to want to keep doing it and to feel safe doing it.”

Even with the return of in-person classes, Graham said theater students are still facing challenges. The mask mandate requires students and faculty to wear masks during classes, so students have had to deal with the additional challenge of acting without relying on facial expressions.

“Actors now are learning how to still tell the story with their full body and voice, even while wearing masks,” Graham said. “Students are learning that although facial expression is important, acting is about action and internal responses, and we can do that on stage even while wearing masks.”

Despite the changes brought on by the pandemic, Graham said the department and its students learned some valuable lessons, turning hardship into growth.

“I think one of the biggest lessons that we as a department learned from this experience was learning to lean into what is possible,” Graham said. “How can we tell stories even if we’re not using the traditional tools that theater provides? How can we still be effective and use those skills that we have trained at Ohio State to be able to tell those stories?”

Graham said upcoming in-person shows include “The Seagull,” by Anton Chekhov; “DigiEYE,” curated by Janet Parrott; and “In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play),” by Sarah Ruhl. More information about the department can be found on their website .

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