Two AU Department of Performing Arts theatre productions halted due to University closure
Heartbreak and hope for those involved in “The Birds” and “Significant Other”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily.
The Life section is publishing a series of stories highlighting how the cancellation of classes due to the coronavirus is specifically affecting arts classes.
Before the University announced to move classes online for the remainder of the semester due to the threat of the coronavirus, students, faculty and staff within the Department of the Performing Arts were well on their way to the opening of the final theatre productions of the semester.
Students in the theatre and musical theatre majors must audition to be in a stage production, and then they may choose to take the production for either zero or one credits. Each theatre or musical theatre major must be in at least two productions to receive their degrees.
The University closure put an abrupt pause on “The Birds” and “Significant Other,” leaving those involved with questions, confusion and heartbreak.
The University’s production of "The Birds," was supposed to open on Thursday, March 26 and run until Saturday, March 28 at the Greenberg Theatre.
The show, an ancient Greek play written by Aristophanes but, is about a Greek couple who are in search of a utopia that they find in the trees with birds. For this production, the cast was going off of William Arrowsmith's 1961 translation of the original.
Professor Colleen Sullivan directed the show, which had a cast of 18 students. She altered the show to include original music by Greek artist and musician Kostas Gakis, who was going to come from Greece to perform live with the students for their performance. Before the University went on spring break, the cast would have had one more week of rehearsal and a series of technical rehearsals before they opened on March 26.
“We still had a long way to go in terms of the discoveries we were making mostly because we had changed this script a lot,” senior musical theatre major Isabelle Jennings Pickering said. “But that said, we had finished what people would typically call the blocking of the piece for several weeks. We were full on our feet.”
The news of AU going online temporarily from March 18 to April 3 meant "The Birds" could not open as originally planned.
After the original announcement, Sullivan moved quickly to address the show’s future. With the tight scheduling at the Greenberg Theatre, a postponement wouldn’t be ideal for the show.
“I would have to reconfigure the practical use of the space because we would have to be sharing it with other things that were already scheduled,” Sullivan said. “I would pretty much have to restage the whole play. That was the plan, but two days later, everything changed again.”
When the University canceled in-person classes on March 12, it was official that "The Birds" could not be performed as intended.
“It was heartbreaking,” Sullivan said. “My first thought was the students, particularly the seniors who were graduating, this was their last show. They wouldn’t be able to finish it, and it was a really joyful process and a unique experience for all of them.”
Pickering was one of the seniors who had their final show cut short.
“I was at a loss and heartbroken for many reasons,” Pickering said. “One, the project is very special to me, and two, the department is very special to me. As I graduate, this is a difficult thing to lose. Your last project is a difficult thing to lose.”
On social media, Pickering saw that her department was not alone in losing a show they had worked so hard on.
“All these theatre students and theatre professionals I know are losing projects, too,” she said. “I think there was this solidarity in everyone losing their projects. But everyone was also trying to find new ways to mount their projects.”
Pickering, Sullivan and the rest of the cast were not ready to be done with "The Birds." They decided to work to try to produce a final product.
“The strength of the ensemble is no one is just walking away,” Sullivan said. “That’s a beautiful thing. I think we’re finding solidarity that everyone in the world is dealing with this crisis. It’s okay to be sad and heartbroken, but we’re also all in this together.”
In an email, Sullivan said that on Sunday, March 22, the cast and Gakis agreed that moving forward they will be making a documentary-style montage of "The Birds." The montage will include rehearsal footage, new recordings of the music that Gakis is sending to the students for them to make audio versions of them singing, costume pictures/drawings and light plots, amongst other things that represent what the show could have been.
The cast plans to have everything compiled by March 28 - what would be their original closing night - and then on March 29, they will reconvene virtually to see what everyone has. Following that, the cast will spend the next few weeks putting together approximately an hour-long video to share with students, family and the Department of Performing Arts.
“It won't be ‘The Birds’ as we imagined it, obviously, but hopefully it will be an homage to all the work that was done,” Sullivan said in an email.
The week before the University was supposed to go on spring break, Mercedes Blankenship, a senior musical theatre major, began to assemble the furniture received for "Significant Other," a show that examines the trope of the gay best friend while addressing themes of loneliness, love and friendship.
Blankenship said that she was excited to be a part of the production in her role as assistant director.
“It felt to me like a really appropriate way to close out my college theater experience because it would be my first time assistant directing a show,” Blakenship said. “Things were going really well, up until spring break.”
"Significant Other" was supposed to open at the Katzen Studio Theatre on Thursday, April 23 and run four shows until Saturday, April 25. The University’s original plan to stay closed and online until April 3 wouldn’t have ruined "Significant Other"’s ability to open.
“If we came back April 3, we still had enough time to get the play on its feet. So, I was pretty hopeful about that,” Professor Carl Menninger, the director of "Significant Other" said. “I thought: ‘We’re not going to have to cancel it.’ If we all just dig in and schedule some extra rehearsals, we should be fine.”
Aryn Geier, a senior musical theatre major playing Helene in the show, was working at the Greenberg Theatre over spring break. She began to learn about the developing situation as the staff of the theatre did. Once they received the announcement about the University’s semester closure, Geier said she was unsure how to feel.
“It was so incredibly heartbreaking,” Geier said. “Knowing objectively that you’re in a pretty good place and that you’re probably about as safe as you could be, but then also trying to not diminish your own sense of extreme loss of so many things.”
Jordan Texidor, a sophomore musical theatre major in the eight-person cast, also felt a similar heartache.
“‘Significant Other’ was the show that a lot of people wanted to be in because it was such a small cast,” Texidor said. “There were a little over 100 people who auditioned for all three shows. From a little over 100 people to be one of the eight people to be picked to be in the show, I was so proud of myself and so ready to go into this and give it my all. Having it canceled was crushing for me. And I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I was so sad.”
Menninger also echoed Texidor’s feelings of frustration.
“I was really sad,” Menninger said. “I was disappointed. Frustrated. Angry. I am not angry at anyone, just sort of angry at the situation. I think what the University did was responsible. It was the right thing to do for faculty, staff and students.”
Similarly to “The Birds,” Menninger isn’t giving up hope on the show entirely. Since the University will technically be reopening on May 5, the last day of spring semester final exams, he suggested that once the University reopens, the members of the cast in the area could get together to do a reading.
“I said, if you’re in town, maybe we do a reading,” Menninger said. “The actors would be without costumes, just in their own street clothes, with their scripts on music stands, and then I could probably organize that in two days, so at least they’d have a chance to put something out there. But, given where things are going right now, I am less optimistic that that can even happen.”
Geier believes that her favorite quote from "Significant Other" said by her character Helene to the main character Jordan is comforting now for not only art students but everyone.
“I think nothing sums it up better than my absolute favorite line in ‘Significant Other’: ‘It’s a long book, Jordan. You’re in a tough chapter. You don’t know when this chapter will end and the next one will start, but the book is long. It’s a long book,’” Geier said.
Update: The cast of “Significant Other” will be doing a reading of the show on Zoom as their final project for the DPA, Menninger said in an email to The Eagle on Monday.