By Miguel A. Gastelum, Theatre and Dance communication specialist
In early 2020 the COVID-19 virus began to make its way to the United States, slowly the numbers grew across the state and country. Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order to take effect on March 19, 2020. At this point, the Department of Theatre and Dance, taking the cue from other regional and professional companies, decided to cancel all remaining live performances for the academic year. In all, five productions were canceled and never given a chance to tread the boards of Fresno State’s theatre stages.
Despite the cancellation of the remainder of the 2019-20 season, the department faculty was steadily planning the upcoming 2020-21 mainstage season. Uncertain of how much longer the pandemic would go on, the faculty and staff hoped for the best but planned for the worst.
By summer, it was clear that the 2020-21 season would be anything but typical. The department had to adapt quickly. The productions transitioned from live performances to film productions that would stream online.
The John Wright Theatre and Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre were turned into makeshift film studios. Lighting, sound, set design, and even costume design are very different for film than theatre, but the department staff quickly adapted and adjusted to this new production style.
The first production to attempt this new mode of presentation was to be helmed by long-time director and faculty member Kathleen McKinley. She would serve as the department’s guinea pig with her production of “Darkside” by Tom Stoppard.
“As the shutdown intensified, it became clear that nothing about my production plans—the play title, the theatre venue, the audience, the student actors, the production schedule—would be business as usual,” said McKinley.
The Department of Theatre and Dance partnered with the Department of Media, Communications and Journalism, more specifically with Candace Egan, to bring “Darkside” to life. The production was filmed and partially edited by students. The result was a theatre, film, and art installation hybrid of a production. It incorporated original drawings, acting, music, and lights to create a unique theatrical experience.
This initial collaboration with MCJ would craft a relationship between the two departments that carried on throughout the 2020-21 academic year. By June, the two departments will have partnered together for a total of three projects; “Darkside,” “To Thine Own Self Be True” and “All in the Timing.” Another production, “Detroit ‘67,” was filmed by University Brand Strategy and Marketing. For the remaining six productions, the department invested in professional film cameras and sound equipment to independently film the productions, with editing contracted outside of the department.
Theatre and Dance faculty and staff worked tirelessly to ensure that Fresno State students could continue to receive hands-on theatre training that exemplified artists’ ability to adapt to a constantly changing world, one thrown into an unprecedented global pandemic.
“I am extremely proud of what the faculty, staff and students were able to accomplish during the pandemic,” said Theatre and Dance Department Chair J. Daniel Herring. “Everyone worked cooperatively to create virtual productions that provided engaging theatrical experiences despite the many challenges performing arts organizations faced. At the end of this academic year, we will have produced ten virtual productions.”
In a time when other university theatre programs, regional theatres and professional theatres were shuttered, the Department of Theatre and Dance showed true resilience in the face of unprecedented hardship. It continued to provide students with the opportunity to create and share challenging and diverse stories with the Central Valley community. With the help of some friends, the department met the challenges of producing pandemic era theatre with ambitious minds and hearts.
“Every production was unique and provided opportunities in the areas of acting, directing, design, dance, storytelling, playwriting and film editing, said Herring. “I am grateful to everyone in the department for their creative energy in making this virtual season a reality and a success.”