The making of 'Too Much Unhappy': a hybrid theatre experience that tackles the complex emotions of the past year
The show combines filmed, in-person scenes with live acting on Zoom
“I’m really hoping that this show will let folks process and really feel where we’re at right now,” said Rebecca Bailey, the stage manager for the Department of the Performing Arts’ newest production, “Too Much Unhappy.”
Bailey, a junior studying public relations and musical theatre, was tasked with helping to bring the production to life and navigating a new kind of performance: a hybrid between in-person and virtual.
“Too Much Unhappy,” written and directed by DPA professor Aaron Posner, is a musical that takes characters from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays to explore the difficulties of being human during turbulent times.
“We were trying to figure out how to create something that was going to be performed on Zoom that could speak to the current moment without being about the current moment,” Posner said. “Chekhov’s plays are about people being stuck and not sure of the world changing around them, so there seemed to be a nice kind of connection to what is happening in the world right now.”
For viewers, the show will take place over Zoom on April 2 and 3, but the cast and crew met in person over two weekends in March to rehearse and film scenes. In addition to the pre-recorded clips, the actors will also be acting live on Zoom. According to Bailey, the show is about half pre-recorded and half live.
Posner, along with students Olivia Cholewczynski, Rosalie Jung, Jillian Skara and Sara Wiser wrote the music and lyrics, while Britta Peterson choreographed the performance. Peterson, the director of the Dance Program, was involved in the in-person rehearsals. She said she used her experiences with dance to help students bridge the gap between virtual instruction and in-person choreography.
“One of the things that folks maybe don’t realize is the enormous amount of logistical planning that goes into making work like this,” Peterson said. “Aaron and I are both very intuitive artists and what’s hard is that Zoom doesn’t create a ton of space for intuitive choice-making because of all of the pre-planning that needs to happen.”
Bailey said that the decision to meet in-person took a lot of planning, from making sure everyone was comfortable with the idea of meeting to figuring out ways to stay safe, despite the coronavirus.
“We were inspired by the ‘Spring Forward’ plan and wanted to offer any in-person opportunities for those who were interested in it,” Bailey said. “With the new version of AU’s COVID testing that was rolled out and having very clear guidelines to follow, we presented it to any cast members who were interested in doing in-person filming.”
In addition to the 18 cast members who were on-site during filming, eight crew members were present. While the group filmed several scenes outdoors, Bailey said they worked to make sure indoor scenes were adhering to COVID-19 protocols.
“Whenever we were inside, like in the Greenberg Theatre, we made sure that we were limiting each room to have no more than ten people in it at a time to follow D.C. COVID regulations for indoor gatherings,” Bailey said. “That was a whole logistical puzzle ... we would have to leave each room every 45 minutes to have a 15-minute air out time.”
Though it isn’t a real substitute for the in-person experience, Posner said that the students have been rising to the challenges that come with Zoom theater.
“When you do Shakespeare, it’s great training for doing work in more contemporary stuff because it’s harder and demands more of you, and Zoom theater is harder than real theater in some ways,” Posner said. “I've been incredibly impressed by the students and their professionalism, resiliency and work ethic to try to make what is difficult worthwhile and hopefully as enjoyable for themselves and each other as possible.”
“Too Much Unhappy” will be performed through Zoom at 7:30 p.m. EST on Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased here.