The curtain has closed on many professional, community, and college theaters throughout the country due largely to the global pandemic. Yet those who have the audacity to reimagine the theater and the arts in new ways are discovering the options are varied and rewarding.
At least that is the experience thus far for Chris Flaharty, costume designer for the Oberlin College Department of Theater. He was forced to discontinue the production of Peter and the Starcatcher when the college closed in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘‘We were right in the middle of the production process when the realities of COVID hit us and the school said ‘everyone out …’ So in the spirit of the show must go on, I decided I would work really hard to find a way to do a play in what was going to have to be a new pandemic performance mode.
‘‘Thanks to the coronavirus,’’ Flaharty says, ‘‘reimagining the way we operate at all levels has been full of inventions; and particularly, finding ways in which our department can continue to achieve its mission of producing theater works with our students. This has been one of the most important challenges to tackle in the Oberlin-in-Covid-era.’’
This new performance mode will not materialize on stage; rather, it will be an audio play. Flaharty, who also is an associate professor of theater, will direct students in The Misanthrope.
It’s a satiric comedy in five acts by the French actor and playwright Molière. The main character, Alceste, is a 17th-century gentleman who is disgusted by the vanity and hypocrisy of society. His response is to be completely honest no matter the cost. Alceste falls in love with the beautiful Célimène, who is noted for her sharp tongue and manipulative socializing, making her the epitome of the type of person he professes to detest. Can love win? Can love stand up to truth? Flaharty chose The Misanthrope as it offers a relief from 21st-century anxiety and timeless insights into the foolish heart of humanity.
And while this is the theater department’s first audio play, Flaharty says faculty and staff are prepared for the challenge, as they’ve been dealing with a variety of issues brought on by the pandemic which the college has worked hard to mitigate.
‘‘Because there can be no live audiences this semester, there can be no live performing, no staging, no set, no costumes …,’’ Flaharty continues, ‘‘so the audio play, an old-school yet freshly revived format, provides vivid engagement with theater-making even when restrictions that would sabotage a live, staged production are a condition of the process. Many theaters are looking to create plays through podcasting or invoking the compelling entertainment of radio plays of yore. It feels like a satisfying genre to launch the theater season that will have to pioneer solutions to production challenges.’’
The fall Main Stage production of the audio play will be distributed digitally for three days only, November 20-22. Interested persons must register in advance to get free access to the performances.
Four seniors, a second-year, and three first-year students round out the cast of characters, including fourth-year theater major and physics minor Connor O’Loughlin in the title role of Alceste.
‘‘I’ve only really done work on stage before,’’ he says, citing parts in Oberlin’s production of Urinetown and Cabaret. ‘‘This was recorded like a film, over multiple days doing multiple takes of a scene.
‘‘I was actually excited for the opportunity to do an audio play. A lot of places have just done plays on Zoom or with masks. With The Misanthrope, it was specifically chosen as a play that can work without a lot of visual cues,‘‘ he says. ’’Highlighting the language of the play might actually enhance the experience. I would have wanted to be involved regardless, but I was excited to be doing it this way.’’
‘‘‘Creating an audio play made sense to me,’’ adds Zeke Schmiedl, who has a supporting role as Oronte. ‘‘It was a safe way to continue theater in COVID-19. I decided to jump right in and learn about how theater can continue during a worldwide crisis while enjoying myself along the way.’’
This is the first Oberlin production for the first-year cinema studies and theater major and he doesn't plan for it to be his last. ‘‘It was a joy to work with my voice along with such a great cast. It's definitely something I would recommend to other actor friends to try out.’’
Garciela Fernandez, also a first-year student, was just as eager to take part. The theater and psychology major had never done an audio play and didn’t know what to expect. ‘‘I’ve found it interesting how much I rely on mannerisms and facial expressions when I’m acting. It’s been a pretty eye-opening experience learning how to vocalize those usually physical mannerisms,’’ she says. ‘It was totally different than anything I’ve done before. ’’
Flaharty’s version of the French play draws from British playwright Neil Bartlett and is set in contemporary Hollywood. The social world of the film industry mimics the insular world of Louis XIV’s court of Molière’s time, he says. “It’s really a strong character play, expressed through brilliant conversation.”
The play also reflects the isolation many experience because of these pandemic times. Most communication is at a distance, and entirely verbal or written, he says, adding “…it's all about using words as both a weapon and a shield to deal with other people’s assaults on your integrity, and perhaps your heart, in a society fueled by manufactured images and daily hypocrisies.”
Preparation and rehearsals have taken on different formats, Flaharty explains—in person with facial masks and socially distanced with hand sanitizer in tow, and on Zoom, unmasked and in solo performances with opportunities to join each other in shared grids. ‘‘The great positive of performing this play this semester is that our actors—a truly wonderful ensemble drawn from all three on-campus classes—must focus on performing with their voices, still using all the tools of a fine actor to get to the ultimate expression of their characters, but in an audio world.’’
Once registered, attendees will receive an email on November 20 with access information and passwords. An email address is required. Flaharty encourages attendees to bring their imagination and a bowl of popcorn.
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