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All the world’s a stage, but what happens when the world is in lockdown?
A masked statue of Caesar sits outside the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.
A masked statue of Caesar from PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Julius Caesar” sits outside the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.

What do the performing arts look like during a viral pandemic? Groups at Carolina are answering that question with inventive new ways to reach their audiences and provide inspiration during a difficult time.

PlayMakers Repertory Company and the Department of Music and UNC Opera — both in the College of Arts & Sciences — have adapted their fall seasons to digital formats so students and faculty can still perform while keeping everyone safe from the spread of COVID-19. PlayMakers recently announced a revised 2020-2021 season comprised of one-person shows and digital performances that will all be available through streaming. UNC Opera will produce two operas, one a pre-recorded film and the other an animation. And the department of music is preparing its bands and ensembles to practice and perform concerts via Zoom.

These adaptions signal a newly forged partnership between the performing arts and technology. Artists from Carolina’s performance groups cite the pandemic’s biggest challenge as losing their creative outlet. With no end to the pandemic in sight, livestreams and recorded performances are a compromise that artists are willing to make to keep their craft alive. But adapting on the fly requires a different kind of creativity and resourcefulness. And while all the artists express the hope that they will be allowed to perform for live audiences again soon, they note that they will adopt many of the changes permanently after receiving enthusiastic feedback from their new fans.

Acting for Zoom

PlayMakers Repertory Company ended its run of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” prematurely on March 17 but quickly began planning how to continue performing for a crowd desperate for creative expression.

The cast recorded monologues from the production at home for those who never got the chance to see the production, but, said Teaching Professor Jeffrey Blair Cornell in the College of Arts & Sciences’ department of dramatic art, who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” nothing can replace live theater.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell

Jeffrey Blair Cornell

“Zoom is not theater, and yet we’ve all come to realize that it can be a medium for some meaningful dialogue and artistic expression,” said Cornell. “It’s not without value; it’s just not the same quality. Out of necessity we’re coming to accept those limitations without accepting that they are optimal.”

Some of those limitations include a much smaller space to work in, not having a scene partner physically present and missing the connection and feedback that a true live audience brings. In trying to combat these limitations, a new element to PlayMakers’ digital performances emerged: the permanence of the internet. Recording a performance for posterity is a novel experience for the actors at PlayMakers, a theatrical company comprised of rotating Carolina faculty, graduate students and professional actors.

“I think as stage actors, we accept and actually enjoy the fact that our performance is temporal and only exists in the minds and memories of the audience,” said Cornell. “Having said that, one silver lining of digital performances is looking back at it knowing how I felt at the time as that character, because so little of my work is preserved in that way.”

PlayMakers’ 45th season, All Too Human, explores the resilience of the human spirit and features only pre-recorded or streamed performances for a digital audience. The reinvented season will include Ray Dooley’s one-man performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”; the world premiere of Carolina professor and playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “Edges of Time”; an encore performance of Durham native Kane Smego’s one-man hip-hop odyssey “Temples of Lung and Air”; a live reading of “The Storyteller,” by Sara Jean Accuardi; a blues-infused reinvention of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”; and a one-man performance of Mike Wiley’s acclaimed “Blood Done Sign My Name.” All performances will be streamed to live audiences, a first for PlayMakers.

photo courtesy of Jacqueline Lawton

Assistant Professor Jacqueline Lawton’s play, “Edges of Time,” will premiere during the PlayMakers 2020-21 season. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Lawton)

The adaptions to PlayMakers’ performances are mirrored by the changes faculty are making to continue to teach in the fall. While some instructors in the department of dramatic art planned on teaching their courses in person with safety measures, all courses have now transitioned to remote learning as of Aug. 17.

In order to teach effectively via Zoom, professors like Cornell are embracing the limitations of Zoom to expand their students’ perspective on staging. One innovative way of interacting via Zoom is treating the camera’s view as the stage itself and working within that frame, a method Cornell encountered in an acting workshop this summer and adapted for his courses.

“I can make an entrance into the shot by moving into the camera’s range. I could have props placed within the shot or even aim the camera at a certain area of the room I want to utilize,” said Cornell. “There are ways to be creative with this little box.”

Students in the department of dramatic arts perform a scene with a partner, hiding their shared video screen so that they only see the other person, while the other acting students in the class mute themselves and turn off their video so they’re only seeing the two people doing the scene. Once the scene ends, everyone turns their video screens back on and discusses the performance.

Cornell is embracing teaching and acting remotely until it’s safe to reunite his students on the stage again, but he also believes “the great pause” during the pandemic will lead to long-lasting change in how theater is taught and performed. He said he and his colleagues have had time to reconsider the structure of mainstream theater and reflect on the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That soul-searching has given rise to a fresh perspective on theater and its past and future.

“This pause is a time to reconsider this inherited sense of the white primacy at the center of our storytelling in the theater and move toward a true recognition that American-ness is different than we thought it was,” said Cornell. “The only way to get true equality is for us to recognize that we have to give up our white privilege as storytellers.”

The future of opera

UNC Opera Director Marc Callahan is producing an opera season this fall with the future in mind.

Marc Callahan

Marc Callahan

“I wanted to create something that spoke to our strengths at Carolina and some of our hidden talents as well,” said Callahan. “And I wanted to take this moment to acknowledge the way we’ve all had to turn to technology in order to create and how we can continue to use technology in the arts.”

For the fall semester, UNC Opera will perform only digital and pre-recorded performances for its audiences, but it’s going a step further than simply recordings from home. In collaboration with a student group called Carolina Animators Anonymous, they will create a 30-minute animation based on the opera “L’enfant et les sortilèges,” by Maurice Ravel.

The piece was written by Ravel during the Spanish Flu outbreak in the early 20th century. The story revolves around a child stuck in his house doing his homework, while his mother scolds him to finish his lessons, a theme parents and children homeschooling during the pandemic will relate to. A highlight of the animation comes when the boy throws a tantrum and rips up the house, breaking china and tearing wallpaper, and one-by-one the elements of the house that he destroyed come to life and fight him.

Animating the opera serves a two-fold purpose — it draws in a new audience that might not otherwise watch an opera and pushes the boundaries of what “performing” an opera looks like. To expand the definition of opera even further, UNC Opera performers are currently creating “TikToperas,” short vignettes from “L’enfant et les sortilèges” using only the filters and features available through the popular app TikTok.

Working outside on ATLAS before classes ended (featuring Lena Kantz and Nijah Poteat)

Cast members of UNC Opera rehearsing outside before the University transitioned to remote learning. (Image courtesy of Marc Callahan)

UNC Opera is also collaborating with the Carolina Film Association to record a performance of “Il re patore,” an early Mozart opera about a shepherd who is the rightful heir to a kingdom but who doesn’t want to take on power. The singers will pre-record their audio in a studio, and the Carolina Film Association will then film the scenes in a theater with the actors either spaced apart or alone on stage. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 through aerosols, the performers will lip-sync their pre-recorded audio while filming.

Callahan frames these fall productions as both a necessary pivot from the usual style of performance and a step toward the future of opera.

“We’re trying to create something that allows the singers to be learning about acting for the stage, about creating design and storytelling, but we’ll also be learning new skills like acting primarily for the camera instead of a live audience,” said Callahan.

Callahan is looking to the summer of 2021 with the hope that UNC Opera may return to live performance by then, with a few modifications. The group is hesitantly planning a production of English composer Will Todd’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to be staged outside somewhere on campus to ensure audience members can stay distanced from one another. He says the choice of a fantastical, dreamlike piece for the return to live performance is intentional.

“I think the one thing that this pandemic has squelched is the desire to dream. All the usual outlets for creative expression are limited, and our dreams are limited as a result,” said Callahan.

He also believes one result of the pandemic will be a resurgence of appreciation for the arts, as everyone realizes the importance of creative outlets when social distancing from friends and family.

“We’re all starting to notice the art forms that are dear to us that we didn’t take advantage of or fully appreciate before,” said Callahan. “But I hope that everyone starts to see the importance of funding the arts, because artists are the ones helping us get through the pandemic.”

Making music virtually

The department of music quickly learned how to teach and perform digitally over the summer when re-organizing its music camps. But preparing to shift all its fall performances to a virtual format takes almost as much practice as learning a musical instrument.

Jeffrey Fuchs

Jeffrey Fuchs

“The Marching Tar Heels returned to campus on Aug. 1 with every intention of training for performances this fall,” said Jeffrey Fuchs, director of University bands.

The Marching Tar Heels were the only University band planning on playing live, in-person performances this fall, but on July 31 they were told they could not use woodwind and brass instruments in the ensemble. On Aug. 17 the remaining band sections switched to remote learning like all other undergraduate courses. The drum line and guard sections are now meeting online via Zoom, like all other undergraduate courses, and planning ways to contribute something to audiences at home.

Some alternative options include pre-recorded productions for what would normally be the Carolina Football team’s pregame or half-time show, or an entirely new program of music that students will learn remotely, then come together to stream for a digital audience.

The Marching Tar Heels rehearsing six feet apart in Kenan Memorial Stadium before the University transitioned to remote learning on Aug. 17. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The Marching Tar Heels rehearsing six feet apart in Kenan Memorial Stadium before the University transitioned to remote learning on Aug. 17. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Fuchs appreciates streamed performances as a way to stay connected and creative during the pandemic and understands that the University bands’ audiences have the potential to grow with shifting performances online: The capacity of Moeser Auditorium, where the University bands perform, holds 430 people maximum, but the potential streaming viewership is unlimited.

“The silver lining is that the parents, grandparents or friends who might live far away or be unable to travel can now watch our students’ concerts,” said Fuchs. “The caveat is that live performance is dependent on interplay with the audience, and that is impossible over Zoom.”

Evan Feldman

Evan Feldman

Director of Wind Studies and Professor of Music Evan Feldman echoed Fuchs worry that in a digital performance there’s a missing element that is present in live music performed for an audience that is physically present.

“Virtual music ensembles where you see 10-20 people on the screen playing together are fantastically exciting for the viewer, but ultimately it’s not ensemble music because it’s never happening at the same time — all those musicians recorded their parts separately then spliced them together,” said Feldman. “The viewer may enjoy it, but for the musician it’s not as fulfilling as playing off other musicians and responding in real time to the audience’s reaction.”

Feldman said one other key missing element of pre-recorded performance is the anticipation of a mistake, the tension that builds when the musicians and audience are all bracing themselves for a particularly high note or technically difficult movement.

Despite the limitations of virtual musical performances, Fuchs and Feldman are taking this opportunity to consider the importance of musical performance for students and, more broadly, the value of art during times of hardship.

“Performing at Carolina may be a student’s last chance to perform with an ensemble, so the experience is very special for our musicians,” said Feldman. “We are developing ways to still perform this year. Just because something is more difficult to do right now doesn’t mean it’s less important. Often, it signals why we should be even more dedicated.”

Looking toward the future

Although the performing arts at Carolina are staying digital for the fall semester, the performers are finding new ways to inspire their audiences during a tumultuous time.

From animated opera to streamed one-person plays, these adaptions are both a sign of the times and a hint toward what the future of live performing arts may look like. Technology was imposed upon the arts as a means for survival during the pandemic, but the quick adaption and ownership of new methods of performance hints at a promising partnership of technology and the arts.

Creativity may prove to be the saving grace. While the entire world is under lockdown, the performing arts are still finding a way to inspire audiences.

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