Santa Monica College’s performing arts students get creative during COVID-19

By Bridgette M. Redman

Santa Monica College’s Theatre Arts Department is presenting its performances online for audiences to enjoy.
Image courtesy SMC Theatre Department]

No college student can afford to waste a semester, not even when there is a pandemic that interferes with the usual activities of pursuing a degree. This is especially true for theater students at Santa Monica College.

With the school restricting people from being in the same room and all activities gone virtual, professors and students were challenged to come up with something that provided critical learning experiences in a realm that relies on being live and in person. The outcome has been three plays, where each student individually records his or her parts, then everything is edited together and put online for audiences to enjoy.

According to Perviz Sawoski, chair of the theater department and director of one of the shows, the subjects of the plays were up to the three directors, but had to fit the model of providing sound acting
experience to students.

“We wanted to do something that would take us as far away from the pandemic as possible,” Sawoski says. “We wanted to do something that would bring lightness and joy to people as opposed to reminding them we are in the middle of this horrible pandemic.”

The shows, which are all free video performances, include “Les Romanesque” by Edmond Rostand and directed by Adrianne Harrop; “The Seven Ravens: A Grimm Brothers Tale Reimagined” by G. Bruce Smith and directed by Sawoski; and “Radio Ghost Stories Revisited,” written and directed by Terrin Adair-Lynch.

Les Romanesque (Through February 14, 2021)

Harrop selected “Les Romanesques” because it is the non-musical version of “The Fantastiks,” a musical she is passionate about.

“I had done the Fantastiks so many times,” Harrop says. “I had starred in it twice and directed it at least once. It was a joy to redo the story with my dear people.”

The production has only five actors in it: a pair of lovers, their fathers and a kidnapper. It is done in a melodramatic style with each actor going over the top with their proclamations of love, hate and money.

Written by the same author of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” this story is about two fathers who scheme to get their children to marry by pretending to hate each other. They build a wall between their properties where the children meet every day. They then hire a kidnapper to pretend to kidnap the daughter so the son can “rescue” her. Once everyone is happily matched, things start to turn a little sour.

The Seven Ravens: A Grimm Brothers Tale Reimagined (Through February 14, 2021)

The reimagined Grimm’s tale premieres a play written specifically for Santa Monica College and its students. Sawoski called upon Smith to write a play in what is their third collaboration.

“When Perviz asked me this past spring to write a new play based on a fairy tale, she specifically told me to write it as a play, even though we were not certain it would be produced on stage in the fall,” Smith says. “Perviz expertly shaped the play knowing that coronavirus might very well have an impact on the final product.”

They moved the fairy tale forward in time and set it in the US in the 1950s and late 1960s. A young woman sets out in search of her seven brothers after learning that her father turned them into ravens because he was angry with them. The setting allows them to play with iconic movements of those two decades and follows a family as they undergo major changes that reflect the world they are living in. The family starts out as a very traditional 1950s family, but their loss changes them.

“The parents are despondent about their loss and don’t know what to do,” says Sawoski. “They want to make a change and are surrounded by the change happening in the US between the 1950s and 1960s, which was pretty drastic. They join the protest movements, ultimately becoming hippies and joining a hippie commune. They change their names from Frank to Leaf, from Betty to Willow, and Mary Beth to Harmony.”

The play is filled with fantastical, otherworldly creatures which help bring the fairy tale aspects to life. These include angels, spirits, stars, a sun and moon king, a guru, and of course, the transformed ravens. They are created by 18 actors who play about 40 different roles.

Radio Ghost Stories Revisited (Through February 14, 2021)

While the other two professors purposely chose something light and comedic to help people escape the mood of the pandemic, Adair chose to go darker with a comedy about ghost stories. With a cast of 22 actors, the story is styled as a “dark comedy of mayhem, madness and murder.” The curtain opens on an ensemble of quirky entertainers who decide they want to save a failing radio station. Their plan? They’ll produce their own peculiar broadcast series.

Rehearsing and creating

While rehearsals took place on Zoom, Sawoski did not want the shows to be performed on the ubiquitous medium. Instead, they sent a green screen, costumes and props to each student, and the students filmed themselves using their smart phones.

“Our students are very adaptable and over the years we have done hundreds of shows,” Sawoski says. “We have always managed to bring the world of the show to the students and they are able to enter that world and use the appropriate acting technique to fulfill the vision of that particular work. It’s the same thing with this. We had pretty intense rehearsals.”

More than ever, the role of stage managers and video editors became crucial to the work. Harrop had high praise for her video editor, but said that much of the show’s comic timing that came out in rehearsal was lost when the video was put together because it was just slightly too slow, something they continued to work on even after the show premiered.

“We had a great rehearsal period on Zoom,” Harrop says. “We had a lot of laughs, and it had the pacing and comic timing. I just missed being able to block it. I could give them notes very easily about their interactions, about their characters, the one thing that was missing was the physical whole, the gestalt.”

Harrop also found that Zoom rehearsals brought her actors closer together. She’d open the room early and people would come and chat, somewhat like they might before an in-person rehearsal, except people were more focused on each other, deprived of the ability to walk around. She also found that her students put in more effort and energy than usual.

“I guess it is because they were so hungry and the only food they had was this Zoom,” Harrop says. “They were eager beavers. They took in everything. One nice thing about doing it on Zoom is that you can zero in on little moments and the nuances.”

Sawoski and Smith originally created the play to be performed live, but were prepared to adapt it to online. Sawoski arranged scenes so that there were rarely more than two people on the screen, with an occasional three. Sometimes to accomplish this, they had to resort to metaphors—such as the seven boys messing with a baptismal font and splashing water all around the stage. The cameras narrowed in on their hands that could be edited together.

“It won’t look like it is happening in real time, I knew that,” Sawoski says. “We’ll create it like a piece of art. We’re using techniques like a music video, where not everything is realistic or linear.”

Instead, they’ll use artistic elements, something Sawoski says can be exciting and allows some things not possible on stage—like having the boys dancing and in the middle of the dance transform into ravens.

Harrop praised her students for gaining a real appreciation of both ensemble and the importance of words. She says there were no prima donnas and that they will never disparage the importance of words while acting. While the shows are not what the typical theater student could expect to participate in during past years, the theater chair says they have picked up new, important skills that will serve them well in their future careers.

“I think they will know how to deal with even the most unusual circumstances,” Sawoski says. “This will be helpful for them when things are better in the world. They know how to film themselves, lighting, and how to number and name shots. We were there to support them the entire way.”

She suspects audiences will enjoy watching the show as much as the students enjoyed creating it. And the college will have met its mission despite the unprecedented effects of the pandemic.

“My goal for the department is that we always want to push new boundaries and find ways that are different and innovative,” Sawoski says. “Even if it means we fail sometimes and don’t achieve exactly what we want. We’re not going to let this bring us down. We’re going to push through and turn something horrible into a learning experience and move forward.”

For more information and to watch, visit smc.edu/academics/academic-departments/theatre-arts/

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