I am in the passenger seat of our pickup headed back to the coast from Eugene when I check in with the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club. The oldest group, students entering seventh and eighth grades, is rehearsing 10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine. I am listening to an announcer doing commentary on an imaginary sport — and then I am gone. Dropped.
Oh, the joys of life in a virtual world.
As the 19 students in the club are learning, virtual performances come with unique challenges. One is technology. When one actor talks, her voice continues, but the video freezes — blame the dreaded lag time brought on by a poor Wi-Fi connection. Then there’s remembering to stay in the frame; to turn off the camera and mic when your performance is over; and to unmute yourself when it’s showtime.
“The thing that I think is most frustrating is you can be doing your scene and you don’t know you are freezing up on the other end,” said Hazel Fiedler, who performs with the Prime Time Players in 10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine. “That’s the most nerve-racking — going live. What if I freeze up? What if my internet goes off in a performance?”
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
The arts council formed the eight-week summer drama club when the pandemic forced cancellation of drama summer camp. Since July 6, students have met twice weekly. Monday meetings feature a theater professional and question-and-answer session. The groups meet a second time each week to rehearse, devise props, and create costumes. The club will culminate in an invitation-only day of virtual performances Aug. 28.
The club is divided into three age groups: Act One Players are third- and fourth-graders; Act Two Players are entering fifth and sixth grade, and the Prime Time Players are incoming seventh- and eighth-graders. Classes were open to all students in those grades, with varying levels of theater experience.
Technical issues aside, performing alone from your living room is entirely different from acting with fellow thespians on stage. That presents its own challenges — and learning opportunities.
“It’s just really hard when you can’t do as much,” said Lucy Furuheim, who has a role with the Act Two Players in The Show Must Go Online. “You can’t interact, you can’t pass a prop. In one of the scenes, we’re using stuffed animals instead of people.”
That sort of creativity, self-reliance, and responsibility are among attributes the virtual club has enhanced, said director Jennifer Hamilton. “They have to do their own thing. I think more than anything, the Monday afternoon meetings have been incredibly valuable for the kids.”
For this play, the students will film themselves, then send the videos to Hamilton, who will knit them together into one play.
Reed Miller notes self-filming comes with pros and cons.
“Live is different. You’re live,” said Miller, also an Act Two player. “With video, you can do it again and again. Live, you get one chance.”
And forget about a stage manager. Online, it’s all you.
“I don’t have anyone turning on my music,” said Addison Barrett, also in The Show Must Go Online. At the Newport Performing Arts Center, “there is someone doing light and sound. Someone helps with the set, costumes. Here, you have to do everything yourself. You have to make sure everything goes perfectly.”
There’s also the business of an audience, which Hamilton describes as the “last cast member.”
Some find the good in the audience being virtual, primarily that people from all over the globe can watch the performance. Others, like Holly Brown, are saddened by it.
“It’s hard, because somebody you love can’t be there,” Brown said. “They can watch the video, but you don’t know they are even there. It’s hard not to be together.”
The drama club also has been a way for students to make new friends. At break, students stay online to talk, said Ava Daniels, a member of Prime Time Players group who has two scenes in 10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine.
“It’s cool just to kind of see how everyone is interested on the virtual side of it,” Daniels said. “It’s cool to see how everyone is working on their set … being creative. One week they don’t have a set and the next, they have this total set. It’s just cool. After we run the whole play, we get to talk and kind of do improv things. It’s really fun to do stuff like that.”
Fiedler, an old hand at acting, having started in kindergarten, has three scenes. One is the performance of a Shakespeare play with stuffed animals. In another, she watches the squirrels from her window, dubbing one happy pair Kim and Kanye. Happy, that is, until Stanley the squirrel shows up and Kim gives him some of Kanye’s nuts. In a third, she throws herself a birthday party, appalled when the invitations are declined because no one wants to die of COVID-19.
She also sees the pros and cons that come with virtual performing.
“It is really different,” Fiedler said. “I’m not sure if it’s going to be scarier not being able to see your audience, or scarier doing it live. It has been really different. I’ve never done a scene alone. I’ve always interacted with someone else.
“Also, one of the best feelings in the world is when you get that feedback that the audience is enjoying what you’re are doing. That is going to be one of the more difficult challenges. It’s always a nerve-racking experience to go on stage and perform something. I’m definitely still going to be nervous. I’m going to be aware all these people are watching me.”
But she’s happy so many people who normally would not see her live will be able to see her on the virtual stage and thinks that people who wouldn’t normally go out to see a show may very well tune in.
“You are in front of a screen, you can eat dinner while you watch. I’m thinking people who live far away from each other, they can do these things. They can all be online. I’m glad we’re doing this, because it is something we might do in the future. It opens performances to cast members from all over the world to do a play together.”
On the road, I reconnect with the club on my iPhone, laughing as Daniels tells the dramatic tale of taking her dog for a walk and forgetting a poop bag.
Then it’s my turn. Do I have some questions for the group? Hamilton asks.
“Yes, I do,” I say. “Tell me, is it…”
“Turn off your mute,” someone says.
I search my iPhone but don’t see the mute button.
“You have to unmute,” several offer.
“You have to speak louder,” someone else says.
And I still I can’t find the damned button.
Then, a young man leans in close to the camera and mouths with exaggerated emphasis, “TURN OFF YOUR MUTE BUTTON,” followed by an eye roll.
And finally, I do, and the show goes on.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.