Following the spring postponement of “The Secret Garden,” Missouri State University’s Theatre and Dance performers finally took to the stage last week, but no one was watching from the auditorium. The audience was home watching online.
Musical Theatre Professor Robert Westenberg said it went well, all things considered.
The performance’s story followed Mary, who is sent to live with her reclusive Uncle Archibald in the English countryside after her parents died in colonial India. With music by Lucy Simon and script and lyrics by Marsha Norman, “The Secret Garden” premiered on Broadway in 1991. The musical is based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
“The Secret Garden” was originally slated for early April at MSU. Westenberg told the News-Leader in a phone interview that it was the week of technical rehearsals when production halted due to the pandemic.
With four cameras set up, Westenberg said the cast completed a few run-throughs to find the best performance. Due to licensing agreements, no post-production editing was allowed.
“We were learning as we went along,” Westenberg said. “It was a live performance, so you had to bounce from camera to camera, like old-style TV.”
Technical challenges, sound issues with masks
There were, of course, obstacles.
“It had huge technical challenges,” Westenberg said. “It had some lighting challenges because stage lighting is different from film lighting.”
With each actor and dancer donning a face mask, sound presented a different sort of challenge. Small microphones were secured on each person’s forehead, but some performers sounded muffled at times due to the masks, Westenberg said.
“It was a difficult thing to control, but on the whole, it went rather well, actually,” Westenberg said. “I was shocked we got the quality that we got because everyone was wearing a mask.”
Initially, seeing performers in masks was bizarre, Westenberg said.
“You’re watching a period piece taking place in Edwardian England, and everyone’s wearing masks,” Westenberg said. “If anybody, 50 to 100 years from now, happens to stumble upon this archival footage, they’ll go, ‘Oh, that was 2020.’”
The first live performance for online audiences
This is the first time Westenberg has filmed a live performance for an online audience, but, depending on how long the pandemic goes on, it may not be the last.
“Obviously, we don’t want to give up on live theater,” Westenberg said. “The community aspect of that cannot be replaced.
“It’s incumbent on us to be able to find platforms that allow students to safely perform, interact with each other, and still be able to share their love with the community.”
This production was a special circumstance, and future performances may not have as big of a cast.
“The week COVID hit and shut everything down was the week we were going into the theater for tech rehearsals,” Westenberg said. “We had already almost built all the set, almost built all the costumes, and designed everything, at least on paper. We decided, since we already put that much work into it, then we could take it over the finish line in the fall.”
The productions to come for this fall and spring will not get the same kind of treatment, in terms of a full cast and crew interacting at the same time.
“It’s just not smart,” he said.
There will be more isolation, fewer people in the same room, filming scenes out of sequence as done in film, as well as other changes, Westenberg said.
“In the spring, we had to improvise rather quickly because it was foisted upon us without any notice,” Westenberg said. “We came back from spring break, and we had to go virtual.”
Westenberg said he had hoped in-person classes and performances would return by the fall semester, but as the summer progressed, he saw that wasn’t going to happen.
“We’ve had to get pretty creative,” Westenberg said.
Westenberg wants audiences to stay tuned because the show must go on.
“We’re still creating,” he shared. “We’re still involving students in a rigorous, three-dimensional way, and we’re getting them on stage, but it’s going to be on a screen somewhere, either on a computer or Chromecast to your television set.”
For a schedule of upcoming MSU performances, visit https://theatreanddance.missouristate.edu/CurrentProductions.htm
“We want to make lemonade out of lemons,” Westenberg added.
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