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BWW Blog: A Virtual Reading of a New Musical


No matter what show is being performed, figuring out how to do theatre in a virtual format has required some work. 

BWW Blog: A Virtual Reading of a New Musical

With the announcement that Chico State would be primarily online for the fall semester, the theatre department decided to do virtual performances streamed online. Along with this, we're getting an exciting opportunity. One of these productions will be a reading of a brand-new musical. "Breathe: A Portrait of a Pandemic" presents five vignettes that each reflect on the experiences of living through the current pandemic. While other schools are performing scenes from the show, we are going to be the first to do the whole thing. Working on the world premiere of a musical while simultaneously doing virtual productions for the first time has had its challenges, but it has also been a really exciting experience.

No matter what show is being performed, figuring out how to do theatre in a virtual format has required some work. Our production manager spent a great deal of time experimenting with different streaming platforms and found that StreamYard worked best for what we needed to do. It functions very similarly to Zoom, but it allows people in the waiting room to actually see and hear what's going on and enables the use of background photos (behind all the individual videos) that we've been using for sets. Unfortunately, the nature of the digital format makes it difficult to perform a musical live. As we found out during a disastrous attempt to sing happy birthday over Zoom, even slight sound delays make it almost impossible for multiple people to sing cohesively. To work around this, individual actors are recording their songs separately and their performances will be edited together. The entire show will be prerecorded, and the final film will be available for streaming. It's not exactly the live theatre that we know and love, but at least it allows us to do some kind of production. It also gives us some experience that's a little closer to working in film, which could beneficial later down the line.

Our very first rehearsal began with us discussing the way that the virtual performance would function, but we quickly moved into talking about the show itself. We were extremely fortunate to have Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald (who conceived the show and contributed to the libretto) join the meeting to share some of the inspiration behind the piece. It was really cool to hear how their personal lives influenced the work. They also shared how the project came together and their hopes for the show in the future. We even got the chance to ask them questions. At a later date, we got to have a Q&A session with one of the composers, Douglas Lyons, who also worked a little with the actors in one of the scenes. This really highlighted what an incredibly opportunity this was. It was amazing to have an open dialogue with industry professionals and to really recognize that we were a part of bringing their vision to life. It filled me with so much joy and gratitude and made me really excited for the rehearsal process.

There were two major differences in this rehearsal process compared to any that I had done before: the technological aspects and doing a brand-new work. Sometimes they were completely separate issues. There were a few times when we had connectivity problems. I had a day where my computer wasn't connecting, and I was frantically texting my stage manager back and forth to try and find a solution. In a similar vein, there was one rehearsal where our director was late because his young daughter had unplugged his computer, forcing him to restart everything. At that same rehearsal, we were getting some terrible feedback and had to take turns muting and unmuting to figure out who it was. Beyond this, there were many people who worked extremely hard to figure out what we could and couldn't do with the platform and how to adjust the rehearsal and performance process for an online format. Long story short, the ride was not always smooth, but we made it work.

In addition to these technical difficulties, there were challenges that would come from doing a new work in any format. The most obvious is that no one was familiar with the work. There was no relying on prior knowledge of the music or the plot to help us learn our parts. Furthermore, we didn't have the finished product from the very beginning. We received several different versions of the script before rehearsals started, but even after we began, there were still a few minor updates here and there. Directors did their best to arrange the schedule so that only scenes with the final version of their music and script were rehearsing, which did help. However, it did make it more difficult to work ahead, and rehearsal schedules weren't always known too far in advance. We were told to be available during the usual rehearsal times, even if we weren't called. In the end, this wasn't a big problem, but there were a couple last minute additions to rehearsals.

While these two difference aspects in the rehearsal process often didn't affect each other, there were times when they intertwined. One way this came up was with learning the music. As I mentioned before, it is almost impossible for multiple people to sing together over the video platforms that we have. This makes it harder to get the timing right, especially since none of us had heard these songs before. Even though we had a demo track of each song, these tracks weren't updated with each new version of the lyrics. Our music director made us recordings of each part we were supposed to sing, but we still didn't know for sure how the final product would sound until it was all edited together. There was also some overlap when it came to staging and narration. With any new work, there are no precedents for staging a scene; however, the way it is staged will significantly impact how moments are perceived. With the digital format, every actor is in their own space, so they are unable to physically interact with each other or use any shared props. This adds to the challenge of making it read well with the audience. Due to this limitation, we are reading some stage directions, but it has been an ongoing discussion to decide which stage directions to use. We want to make sure that what's happening in the scene is understandable, but don't want to detract from the performance either. We want to stay as true as possible to the material that we were given, even while making the necessary modifications for a virtual performance.

This particular production has been full of many firsts for me. It's been really interesting to not only do my first virtual production but also to simultaneously experience doing a new work for the first time. I've gotten some more insight as to what this industry looks like, both in how things worked previously and in how they're developing in this present moment. Even though there may have been some ups and downs while we all tried to figure things out together, overall, it has been a very positive experience. I am so grateful to be a part of this amazing opportunity, and I know it will be something I remember for years to come.

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