Techniques for our times: Azar and company make theatre work
Agility, mental toughness, strength training, and overcoming adversity are terms often associated with athletes. But for members of Furman Theatre, who’ve had to find innovative ways to deliver performances, the language is just as appropriate.
In September, Furman Theatre staged Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information,” a play directed by Maegan McNerney Azar, associate professor of acting and directing and the chair of Furman’s Department of Theatre Arts. She totally revamped the season to accommodate both in-person and remote students – a mix imposed by the university to thin out the number on campus at the start of fall semester in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
“We changed our first two productions entirely because we knew we could manage them under whatever restrictions or complications we might face,” Azar said.
True to life, “Love and Information” is about technology, isolation and the modern state of human connection. Each show was performed outdoors, promenade-style on seven “stages” before a 10-member, masked and distanced audience. It was also filmed to provide online viewing. Interspersed between acts were prerecorded random scenes accessible via QR (quick response) code.
The random scenes, written and recorded by remote-only students, gave those students a way to participate, said Azar. As the audience moved from stage to stage, the scenes were viewed from audience members’ phones.
Senior cast member Loni Covington enjoyed the freedom and flexibility afforded by outdoor theater.
“We were able to play around with nature and see how we can tell stories using the things around us,” she said.
But at times, nature didn’t cooperate with the cast and crew. “Weather was a huge deal for filming – we ran into problems with heavy rain for both filming and live performances,” said Covington. “We had to cancel a night and cut another show short.” Most shows, however, ran without a hitch (mosquitoes notwithstanding). “We just had to be prepared to end or delay moments,” she said.
The mask-on, mask-off dance among actors was another hurdle to clear. Azar calls it “maskography” – the art of when to take masks off or leave them on.
“We actually blocked mask-wearing and did a lot of measuring to make sure actors were far enough away from each other,” she said.
Despite the uncertainties of outdoor theater, Azar said ticket sales for virtual and in-person shows were comparable to previous live performances in The Playhouse. Overall, she is pleased with the way students have shown resilience.
“We are asking students to adapt really quickly to a lot of different things,” said Azar. “Each style of play requires different acting, design and technical elements. But the experience is providing them with a wealth opportunities, so when we do get back to normal, whatever that means, they’ll have new tools in their toolbox.”
Up next is Charles Aidman’s take on Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” which opens the week of November 10. Directed by Furman Theatre Professor Rhett Bryson, the play will be staged entirely on Zoom.