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CatholicU Presents Shakespeare Virtually


CatholicU Presents Shakespeare Virtually

"Theater is about collaboration between actors, directors, designers, and stage crew," says Eleanor Holdridge, associate professor and chair of the Department of Drama in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art. "It is about what happens in the room."

So what does a director do when that "room" is no longer open?

On March 18, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholic University cancelled all aspects of on-campus student life (extending an initial move to online instruction through the end of March). Holdridge stayed awake that night thinking about the spring production of Measure for Measure. Shakespeare's play, featuring a cast of 13 undergraduates, three M.F.A. students, and two student crew members, was scheduled to open on the Hartke Theatre main stage on April 22.

Holdridge sent an email early the next morning to the cast and crew: "... I woke up thinking about our Measure for Measure, grieving for the loss of the wonderful time we would have had in the room working together. And, of course, thinking about a way to move forward."

She told the students she hoped they could gather in the fall for a staged reading of the play. In the meantime, she suggested a virtual play. In her email, she laid out how it might happen. They would rehearse virtually in the evenings to do scene work, leading to a full "dress rehearsal," and then a release of the recorded play.

In explaining her vision, Holdridge wrote, "I'd probably want to edit the script a bit more and create stage directions (like a hubbub here and there) to get a bit more life into our digital play."

Even as she proposed the plan, she was aware she was "suggesting something that is totally antithetical to what live theater is." Beyond the teamwork and collaboration that happens in the rehearsal room, she thought about the live audiences they would not have. "The audience responds to what they see on stage and the actors play off the audience reaction," she says. "Because of that unique relationship, no two performances are the same."

Holdridge put those concerns aside, thinking instead of her students' need for continued connections in a world that was calling for isolation. She was especially mindful of the five seniors in the cast. "They would not be returning for the remainder of their last college semester," she says. "I didn't want the play to be one more loss for them."

For Marie Kottenstette, who is a double major in drama and English, being cast in a lead role in a Shakespeare play her senior year was a dream come true. "My love of acting and language was coming together," she says.

Kottenstette was at her home in Sterling, Mass., when word came that students would not be returning to campus this semester. Like most seniors, she began to think about all the goodbyes she would not have.

"It's our community that makes Catholic so special," she says. "I thought about my friends, professors, and I'm an RA, so all of the residents on my floor. Without the goodbyes, as seniors, we all started to recognize it was going to be really hard to close this important chapter in our lives. So hearing from Eleanor right away was really reassuring. She's been such an important faculty member and mentor to me, and I was not surprised that she had a plan."

Measure for Measure revolves around main character Isabella, played by Kottenstette, a novice who pleads with a powerful ruler, Angelo, to save her incarcerated brother from death. He offers her a deal. If she sleeps with him, he will save her brother. How does the young woman, poised to take religious vows, negotiate this moral dilemma?

"I love my character," says Kottenstette. "She is strong willed, resolute in her convictions, and so well spoken. As we rehearse each night over Zoom [a video communication platform], we are all so focused on the language. We have only our words and our head and shoulders as tools in our acting."

Rehearsals begin most nights at 5 p.m. EST with a check-in. Students and director share how they are doing in the new world of social distancing - sometimes sharing struggles and disappointments, other times sharing humorous stories about life at home. Then they delve into each scene, working as a team to tell a story through their screens in homes across the country.

"There's a lot of problem solving," says Holdridge. "Simple things like how do we let the audience know that someone has exited or entered a scene? How do we move seamlessly between the speaker view and the gallery view? How do we relate to our computer's camera instead of playing off a scene partner? How do we convey the big Shakespearean life-and-death moments without a stage and full use of the actor's body? There is a lot of discussion about words and emphasis and tone and expression."

Isabel O'Hagan, the stage manager, is behind the scenes of the nightly Zoom rehearsals handling the logistics of an online production. The sophomore from Des Moines, Iowa, has appeared in two operas in her still-young college career as a voice major. When she signed on as stage manager, she wanted to try her hand at the backstage aspects of a performance. "It's not been the learning opportunity I expected," she says. "But it's been a lesson in flexibility and adaptation, which is what theater is all about."

The play will be filmed and released for viewing on April 23, William Shakespeare's birthday, on the school's YouTube channel. Junior Zachary Morelli, a double major in drama and pre-med studies, says that's one of the silver linings of a virtual play. "I'm excited to distribute the play to family members, many like my grandparents who live too far away to have traveled to D.C. to see the show."

Morelli has the lead role of Angelo. "He's a villain, and I'm having fun playing a bad guy. This process has been a nice outlet during a difficult time."

Holdridge agrees. "With so much stress surrounding us right now, it's been wonderful to keep going and working together. This is not the experience we had planned. But we are making it work, and work well. My caution now to the students is 'Let's not get too good at this.' Theater communities across the country are longing to get back in the room to create our art in person."

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