The term “stakes” in theatre refers to situations in which actors or characters have added tension or something to lose. Stakes can be a conflict in the plot, the pressure to perform for an audience, or in assistant professor of music Matthew Johnson’s case, a global pandemic completely changing the way he must teach and direct this semester.
With just seven students enrolled, Johnson’s class, voice and movement for the act, is able to still meet in person, but he plans to experiment with Zoom for some sessions. When the class works on accents or vocal inflections, what Johnson calls “voice work,” they can meet on Zoom.
Students have an advantage in remaining in their own homes and comfortable spaces because voice work requires the actor to be relaxed. Students may have an easier time learning these new techniques when they are in a familiar environment.
The movement sections of the class, however, rely heavily on interacting with others. In the past, the class involved physical connection and getting into each other’s space. Previous semesters had students leaning against each other and pulling one another to practice exchanging body weight and working together.
Now, these exercises are done with chairs and doors in an attempt to imitate the presence of a partner. The exercise then becomes focused more on the self rather than on following someone else.
Throughout the class, Johnson works to maintain the space. Johnson occasionally has to yell a reminder to stay six feet apart, but overall he says his students are doing well. He plans his syllabus to have a loose structure so that he can spend more time on a subject or exercise if his students are doing well with it, or go on a tangent to another topic if that is where the class wants to go.
Along with teaching a class, Johnson is also directing the campus musical, “Something Rotten.” Losing the audience means the show will have to be filmed, and “Something Rotten” is one of the few musicals that does not have strict copyright on filming and livestreaming the show.
The musical cast consists of 16 students, and they moved to the Blackbox in the Center for the Arts building to give them more space. When singing, the cast must be 12 feet apart, unless facing away from one another, and always maintain at least six feet.
Each character’s mask will coordinate with the costumes, and the costume designer is experimenting with cloth and clear mask designs.
The sets will be dropped in via green screen, and camera angles can create optical illusions about where the actors are on the set, making them appear closer than they are at times. If need be, Johnson plans to implement puppets in the musical to make up for the lack of cast members.
While losing the audience and a lot of the connection with the cast is disappointing, Connor Akers, a student in the musical, said Johnson helps him to feel better about it all.
“He’s working with a limited hand of cards,” Akers said, “because there’s so many rules we have to obey now, and he’s sort of being put in a box. But he is doing very well especially considering the box”
Akers says he and the cast sometimes feel anxious because they are not used to performing for a camera, but Johnson is comfortable with the setup. When he feels unsure, he looks to Johnson.
“Him being, ‘this is ok, this is normal, this is how we’re going to do it’ makes it easier on us,” Akers said.
When asked if he feels safe continuing to do the musical in person, Johnson said, “if I didn’t feel safe, I wouldn’t go to school.” He checks his temperature and blood oxygen levels every day and believes all his students are adhering to the campus precautions.
He has other theatre friends all over the country and said that his friend in New York was astonished that he was able to have in-person rehearsals at all. Some schools hold all theatre classes on Zoom, but others are completely in person.
Certain theatres implemented a two-week lockdown of all cast members so they are able to perform unmasked with each other, and Johnson said if that was an option for them, he might consider it, though he might not be able to be away from his children for that long.
Even with all the precautions, Johnson said exposure and outbreaks are inevitable.
“It’s just going to happen and it’s just going to keep happening through this semester and into the next semester,” he said.
He said everyone is doing their best and that is about all they can do.