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Pandemic Acting More Subtle Than Stage Performance

Performers on stage
University High School
High school musical and theater productions like this one at University High School have given way to Zoom theater.

Actors act, even in a pandemic. But what high school students are doing now is more subtle than the way they usually tread the boards.

Twelve plays open next week online in the Everywhere's a Stage Theater Festival in Bloomington-Normal. It includes more than 80 kids, four high schools, eight Illinois State University theater education students as directors, and four high school directors -- all saying the pandemic won't stop them from performing  virtually.

Kevin Vernon, who teaches theater at Normal Community High School, said instead of settling, they chose to strive.

“What would normally have been OK, 'So yeah, we're in COVID and we're going to replace your regular show with a small cast and it's going to be Zoom theater yay (sarcastic).' Instead we were able to say we're going to involve a lot more people. It's going to be very different," said Vernon.

Usually, scheduling hurdles prevent combining casts from different schools. Vernon said Zoom, though, is geographically liberating. Vernon and the other festival organizers took the opportunity to expose their theater kids to students in the other high schools and to other directors.

"This is more than just an activity for kids. This is their home. This is their identity. This is something that is really important to them and we felt that we needed something different and something important to be able to say it's OK. It's different, but we've got this!" said Vernon.

The pandemic makes many theater things different. Vernon said she's far more relaxed and flexible because directors don't have the level of trust with the parents of students from other schools that the parents of kids in her program have with her.

Acting in a Zoom theater forces students to adapt as well. Virtual performances take a lot of the physical part of theater away. Vernon said students have to hold still in the frame and use their voices more.

"They're getting a lot of vocal variety and we are noticing things more like vocal patterns. OK, now you have to walk over here while all the same time thinking about this tragic thing your character is going through. Well, now you have to do it with your face, but also think, 'Well, I can't let my voice get too high pitched there, so I want to do this instead.’ So, it's that combination of method acting and interior," said Vernon.

Students in the festival said online acting is just as interesting as in person on stage but, yes, different.

Bloomington High School junior Dawson Marshall said it was eye opening because he had always viewed acting as mostly a physical effort to convince the audience that the person on stage is who they say they are. Now, it's much more internal.

"There's not really a stage and there's more focus on just the characters. So, for me it has really given me a chance to dig into my character," said Marshall.

He said you have to have a rock solid focal point, a steady head position to make it Zoom-friendly and expressions instead of hand gestures that appear huge on screen.

“It's really how much of your face and how close your face is to the camera, kind of imagining the scene in your head and where you'd be looking," said Marshall.

They use a lot of green screens. They do costumes and makeup at home with what they have.

Normal West senior Justin Turner agreed character work comes to the fore in Zoom settings.

"You're going to have to look at what different things affect them, why do they act this way, what were they doing before the topic of the scene," said Turner, who cautioned you can get too tied up in the motivations of the character and ignore the technical aspects of the craft of acting.

"It's fine to get lost in it and it's actually good, but still it's a lot to do with just practicing and just remembering what this character's motives are," said Turner.

Turner and Marshall said they thought at first it would be difficult to connect with other actors. One of the charms of in-person theater is the downtime. Actors off stage run lines. They cut up and have fun when the director works with someone else. It turns out, one-on-one and small group bonding still happens, courtesy of Zoom breakout rooms.

"Oh, it's weird. Once you are not able to see them face to face or even be around them and get to know them it's weird. You feel like you are losing some of that chemistry. So, you have to kick in a second gear and work harder to get the chemistry to work out between the roles," said Turner.

Turner and Marshall agreed acting online is not easy, but if you put your heart into it, it is very fun.

ISU theater education professor Jimmie Chrismon said the ISU students overseeing most of the festival plays have had to learn a new way of directing in a virtual environment. It's not a stage. It's not a movie screen, nor even a TV screen. This is a really tiny screen in which micro expression matters -- a lot.

"They're having to look at more subtle things, how they can interact with each other in those 'Brady Bunch' style boxes of Zoom, figuring out how to tell the story when they are not in the same space together. It has been fun to watch them grapple with that," said Chrismon.

A virtual environment has some things a stage does. Chrismon said there's directionality. Students look up or over at another box if you can fiddle with zoom settings, so the dominant box doesn't pop around the screen.

"I believe some of them have figured out how to pin the squares in place so they can do that," said Chrismon.

And having that steady grid of squares allows interactivity.

"Some duplicated props that they pass from one character to another. Person A would hand it to the right and the person beside them would grab it from the left and have a second prop, the exact same kind they work with so they are finding really inventive ways to deal with that," said Chrismon.

He said the host of the meeting -- er, director -- can mute and blank out a box when characters go off stage. And of course, some things stay the same.

"When there are students who don't come to rehearsal you figure out what you have to do in the moment and get as productive a rehearsal as possible," said Chrismon.

There are always distractions at rehearsal, but rehearsal recordings show the variety of interruptions multiplies on Zoom.

"I got distracted by the cat feeder in the background going off. It's terrifying. There's this recording of my aunt going, ‘Come get your food.’ It haunts my nightmares,” explained one actress after missing a cue.

Through all the fun, Bloomington-Normal high school students said the work of theater matters now more than ever. Normal West's Turner said it means something to him, but also to the community.

"It's really important to support it. The fact this is even happening is beyond me. I didn't think we would be having a play. And I really wanted to reach out to our community. I think that theater is slept on in our town and through the world to be honest. We mostly focus on movies," said Turner.

He said bringing the stage to the public is important during this uncertain time.

And Chrismon said even with all the make do's and adaptions, everywhere really is a stage.

"When we're faced with challenges, we, as artists, find ways to thrive and still tell our stories," said Chrismon.

The theater festival streams performances next week -- five days -- 12 plays.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.