While theater companies and musical organizations around the country are having to shut down productions during the COVID-19 pandemic, The University of Texas at Dallas’ theatre program creatively improvised, ensuring that “the show must go on.”
The program’s spring production, “Faust,” was planned to be a big stage event, with a guest director, two professional actors, outside costume and scenic designers, and a guest composer — all complementing the student actors, musicians and production crew. In mid-March, however, it became clear that the production could not occur as planned.
“I was afraid we were going to lose the chance to see this project to fruition and that we wouldn’t have the chance to work together,” said Melinda Kalanzis, visual and performing arts junior in the School of Arts and Humanities (A&H).
Shelby Hibbs, A&H clinical assistant professor and producer of the production, said it was important that the play continue for a number of reasons, one of which was that it was a new version, translated by Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, professor of literature and history and the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies, and Dr. Frederick Turner, Founders Professor of literature and creative writing.
Very quickly, a solution was found: The stage play became a radio play, complete with music, audio effects and a robust website to provide the audience with the feel of the play’s period.
“We were lucky in the sense that this was an original translation, and we didn’t have to get a license or pay royalties, because if we had, the whole production would have been shut down,” Hibbs said. “I wanted to honor the work that the translators had done.”
Although the director, actors, sound technicians, editors and costume designers were all restricted to their homes, rehearsals continued through videoconferencing applications and recording software. High-quality microphones were distributed to the actors, who worked in groups to record various scenes.
“It was a herculean effort to put this together,” said Raphael Parry, guest director of “Faust.” He said the cast and crew have worked diligently to pivot the production, although the technical issues of working remotely were sometimes a challenge.
“There were certain tactical things we couldn’t control,” said Parry, who is the executive and artistic director at Shakespeare Dallas. “If we had a bad computer signal from one of the actors, then we would lose the entire take. Because of Wi-Fi issues, we lost a couple of evenings of work.”
Visual and performing arts junior Hayden Lopez said that while performing in a radio play was different than a stage production, it was fun to learn a new aspect of acting.
“In radio, attention to the spoken language has to be much more precise,” Lopez said. “You have to have a lot more inflection in your voice, and you have to be able to really paint a picture with your words because you lose the visual aspect.”
Lopez said he and the other actors had to be creative to create a quiet area for recording.
“To help absorb the sound, I took a rug into my closet where I recorded. I also had my laptop and the mic that was provided. Then the production team did its best to tune it to get the best possible sound. Obviously, it’s not a studio,” he said.
While the actors laid down their tracks, musicians also individually recorded the newly arranged score that featured solo parts rather than an orchestral ensemble. In addition, students helped create a website to highlight costume renderings and scene designs, which provide a visual connection to the work.
“‘Faust’ really is more of a dramatic poem than a play, so it’s good for people to be able to really listen to the translation and listen to the language. I think it’ll actually work to our benefit to do this version of the play rather than doing a full production of it,” Hibbs said.
The final production is divided into 20-minute segments and, because of contractual arrangements with Actors’ Equity Association, the show will be available online for only two weeks, starting April 26. The show is free, but registration is required.
“It’s been a great opportunity to teach different skills about vocal production for microphone versus stage,” Parry said. “And the mix of professional actors and student actors is an interesting aspect of the project. I’m hoping that people enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed recording it.”