February 17, 2021

Breaking Ground in Theatre Online

For the better part of a year, Oakwood secondary campus students have experienced school life remotely, including those engaged in the theatre program. When they stage a production of George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum this week, Oakwood students will be performing online, and everything that goes into the production—from rehearsal to costuming and stage design—will have been done according to the now-familiar ways of the pandemic: largely online and physically distanced. 

The Colored Museum is a collection of 11 satirical sketches of African-American life, and is the first play written by a Black playwright to be performed at Oakwood, theatre teacher Javier Rivera told Spectrum News earlier this month. Inspired by the 1619 Project, Javier felt it was important to solely cast Black-identifying students in the play, with other students taking lead on production roles. The objective is to “make sure that the students of color in the classroom are seeing themselves reflected in the lessons that they are teaching.” Leading by example, Javier stepped aside and tapped African-American actor, writer, and director Herb Newsome to take over the director’s chair.

We went for it full force.

Johnnyangel Pineda

In addition to foregrounding issues of diversity and equity, the play breaks new technical ground. When they began rehearsing for the play last fall, it wasn’t certain yet whether schools would reopen before the show’s scheduled opening date. However when it became clear that campus closures would last well into the new year, students and faculty working on the play had to quickly pivot to doing everything with health and safety precautions in place.

By the second week of December, we had to make a decision, since I couldn’t direct two types of performances,” Herb says. “We had to hit the ground running.” 

Moving the production online creates its own set of challenges, but also opportunities that would not be possible with a live, in-person performance. The actors rehearsed remotely in their own homes, while Herb and the production team watched each of them in different Zoom windows. “There’s a difference between directing in the theatrical medium and the film or tv medium,” Herb explained. “In theatre, the audience looks at the entirety of the stage, they choose what they look at, while in film and tv, you tell the audience exactly what to look at.”

The production stage manager, Coco ‘22, watches each rehearsal and emails the cast afterward with blocking notes and prop lists. Since each actor is rehearsing in their own home, there needs to be multiple sets of props and blocking scripts so everyone can be on the same page, literally. On the day of the production, they’ll each text a photo of their props to Coco who will make sure they have everything they need, so if one character hands a glass to a character in another window, it comes off seamlessly. During the play, Coco will be on campus, watching the action take place on a monitor and triggering pre-recorded sound cues, such as a gunshot or slap, alongside a team of three assistant Stage Managers.

Unable to meet in person for fittings, students in the costume department had to be creative to make sure everything fit just right. After completing historical research, creating mood boards and sketches, and finally producing the costumes, student designers dropped the pieces off in the school sanctuary where actors picked them up. They tried them on at home for virtual fittings with the designers, then returned them to the sanctuary where the designers picked them up for adjustments. All of this could not have happened without the Oakwood secondary campus security team who have been there to make sure these on-campus activities happen safely.

Despite the complications of virtual fittings, costume team mentor Johnnyangel Pineda says he didn’t want to sacrifice the quantity or quality of pieces in the play. “We did everything head to toe: jewelry, hats, wigs,” he says. “We went for it full force. I wanted my five student designers; Ninah ‘24, Mia ‘22, Lori ‘26, Henry ‘22, and Emma ‘22, to get the breadth of a full show. We’re one of the only physical, tangible elements.”

While the costumes are still real, the sets are very much digital, assembled from images mostly found online and then customized to fit specific blocking and other show elements, by Leo ‘23, the student Technical Director. The actors rehearse and will perform in front of green screens, allowing Leo to insert the appropriate set background behind them. “We’re not limited to building a set,” Leo says. “There are eleven different scenes, so we’re able to switch backgrounds at the click of a button, without having to move eleven different sets.”

Leo has also learned multiple software programs like Touch Designer, that will allow him to composite separate Zoom windows, placing actors in the same space, although they may be miles apart in their own bedrooms. All of this will be done live on the night of the performance, as the students are acting. “I see three things: seven actors with green screens, seeing it being processed with backgrounds added, and then the final broadcast,” Leo explains.

As with the sound cues that Coco must fire during the performance, Leo will have 100 cues for digital effects, maintaining the sense of immediacy and live drama of traditional theatre.

Translating a live play to the digital realm involves more than simply filming the action, especially when the cast and crew can’t be in the same room. Oakwood theatre students met this challenge head-on, creating a hybrid production that melds conventional theatre with current technology. “The audience won’t be just looking at talking heads. Technology-wise, how do you incorporate new things and ideas? We had to come up with it all on the fly,” says Herb. “So let’s take a stab at it. If we pull it off it’s gonna be great.”

The Colored Museum will be broadcast LIVE on February 18, 19, and 20.

Click here for tickets and more info.

**This play is intended for ages 12 and up.