Theater in the Virtual: G-C to stage one-act productions online

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GREENFIELD — In March, when live entertainment came to a screeching halt, many a high school theater student walked away from their alma maters leaving behind completed sets on stages and costumes and props at the ready, not to mention dreams of applause and stardom.

A Facebook page for high school theater directors featured post after post of heart-wrenching anecdotes of shows shut down by cautious administrators even before the schools closed: descriptions of what would have been opening nights spent tearily at home in front of Netflix; seniors who spent four years dedicating every spare moment of their lives to theater unrecognized in year-end awards; angst and uncertainty for the future of drama programs and theater in general.

It was no different for Carolyn Voigt, director of Greenfield-Central Drama. The cast of the spring musical went home for spring break, fully expecting to resume rehearsals when school reconvened two or three or four weeks later — but that time never came, and Voigt and crew were left with holes in their hearts where memories of a musical should have been.

“It was heartbreaking,” Voigt said. “You mourn for all the hours of rehearsals that these kids did in order to perform their best.”

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When it became clear that school — and therefore, rehearsals — would not be resuming any time soon, Voigt put a contingency plan into effect. She and her dedicated cast pieced together — scene by scene — the entire spring production from the students’ homes with video clips filmed on tablets, phones and laptops. What they got was a video time capsule: a snapshot of determination and resilience to continue doing what they all loved of the era of COVID-19.

In late July, when Voigt, assistant director Dennis Cole and a handful of students finally took down the set, they all agreed it was the closure they needed to get beyond the show that could have been.

“Taking it down and talking about it was very cathartic,” Cole said.

Fast forward to the start of a new school year and more uncertainty. Greenfield-Central opened to in-person instruction, but on Aug. 13 — citing positive COVID-19 cases — the high school moved to a hybrid schedule, splitting the student body in half for a two-days-in school/two-days-virtual learning schedule. Voigt realized that the option for a virtual show would make it possible to work around the hybrid schedule and student absences due to contact tracing and COVID-related symptoms.

Greenfield-Central Drama typically starts its theater season with a student-directed production, and this year, it’s the one-acts. Directors Kayla Billman, Atlas Bruner and Leah Olin are directing “A Cocktail Party,” “Artistic Inspiration” and “10 Ways to Survive the End of the World,” respectively.

Voigt’s experience in the aftermath of the canceled spring production provided the template for how to approach a virtual theatrical production. Auditions were held both live and virtually allowing students sent home to quarantine to participate equally. Directors met virtually to determine casting and set their rehearsal calendars.

Rehearsals now take place on Google Meet, a Zoom-like app that facilitates groups of people to gather virtually online. The casts, the largest of which has 10 actors, can meet in real time to rehearse, run lines and eventually film scenes from their shows.

Although Voigt mastered the steep curve of video editing skills in piecing together the spring show, for the one-acts, that task has fallen onto student shoulders. Each team of actors has one student designated to compile the clips and videos into a cohesive performance for audiences to watch.

A typical rehearsal found Coy Walden and Caylie Langston working to record lines on SnapChat for their one-act, “10 Ways to Survive the End of the World.” The two had found an alien filter on the app which was perfect for their show. Meanwhile, Voigt logs into Google Meet to check on rehearsals for the other two one-acts.

Voigt is impressed with the kids’ skills.

“The creativity we’re seeing is mind-blowing,” she said. “The problem solving to get the effects they want.”

Once each director has submitted a complete performance, Voigt will put all three one-acts together in a single video for audiences to enjoy.

The virtual performances for “A Night of One-Acts” are at 7 p.m. September 19 and 20. Tickets are available for $9 (plus a $2.50 servicing fee) at gcscdrama.weebly.com. Patrons will receive a link from the troupe’s live streaming service giving them access to the performances so all can watch safely from home. For more information, visit the website or GC Drama on Facebook.

Voigt is extremely proud of the kids, their resilience and their flexibility in the face of the constant challenges that the COVID-19 world has thrown at them.

“They have so much more ownership over this show than any other show we’ve done,” Voigt said, “because they’re the ones who are putting it together and editing.”