Two classes to stage Eckerd’s first-ever virtual theatre performance

Published September 16, 2020

Megan Smiley’s first role in a theatrical production at Eckerd College came to her in her senior year—and it’s a lead. Her blue hair, lips and mood will embody The Moon in Into the Wind, the College’s first-ever virtual performance.

“When reading it, I felt The Moon was sort of this stoic character, nurturing and wise,” said the human development student from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, who goes by Smiley. “As an actor, I like the serious roles that can be dreary in a beautiful way. That’s what really drew me in.”

Even as an aspiring dramatherapist, Smiley hadn’t expected to be doing any acting before leaving Eckerd. A necessary course redesign resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, however, made a lot of previously unexplored possibilities all too real. The student-led and student-edited performance will premiere at 8 p.m. September 24 on the showtix4u.com platform and will re-air at 8 p.m. on September 25 and 26 and at 2 p.m. on September 27.

Under normal circumstances Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen’s Theatre Production class would be spending a semester in Bininger Theater and the costume shop preparing for the fall play and learning the technical aspects of running a show from behind the scenes. This September she had to adapt her curriculum into a three-and-a-half-week intensive course because of the College’s Block/Module course format and phased-return plan.

“I thought about just doing theory lectures and getting them to research various backstage jobs, but then I thought about why I got into this. I want to show students the real joy and excitement producing theatre creates,” Thonen said. Since her 13 students are learning remotely from Spain to Alaska, delivering that hands-on experience meant figuring out how to mount an entire production over Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform.

Professor Thonen on campus

Professor of Theatre Jessica Thonen

Thonen reached out to colleague Jenn Rapp Pearl, a musical theatre director and choreographer whose credits include international touring performances of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Thomas the Tank Engine. Thonen knew that after theaters went dark to slow the spread of COVID-19, Rapp Pearl continued to orchestrate virtual hospital-visit performances for children in cities where her show would have toured.

“We had seen things—a lot of virtual performances were plays about two people talking on Zoom or old radio plays adapted for Zoom—and knew that isn’t what we wanted to do,” said Rapp Pearl, the show’s director.

Thonen said most Zoom plays were all about loneliness in pandemic times and looking for connection via a video call. “That’s just a little too close to home right now, so I wanted to do something more produced, more theatrical,” she admitted.

She started penning an adaptation of Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Starless Sea, featuring a love story about an innkeeper and The Moon. Rapp Pearl helped refine the draft and piece together what this could look like via little boxes on a black background. The only missing piece was how they’d pull together the final product. Cue Nick Corrao, professional film editor and the Donald R. Eastman III Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Eckerd.

Corrao was similarly challenged, like Thonen, to adapt his Intro to Filmmaking class into a three-week intensive course. When Thonen approached him with her proposal, he saw an opportunity to give his students their first real editing job for a client. With students learning remotely from Denmark to Colorado, it was fortuitous having a single project for them to work on as a team. This show will challenge their knowledge of the software, Adobe Premiere, as well as their ability to interpret the material and offer alternative edits.

Professor Corrao on campus

Donald R. Eastman III Assistant Professor of Film Studies Nick Corrao

“They’ll be doing effects, resizing, color correction and audio mixing,” Corrao exclaimed. “For an introductory course, this is an amazing opportunity to work on a high-level production.”

Theatre Production students have been tasked with creating their own makeup concepts, costuming, lighting, sets, props and even puppets. The fantastical play includes characters like The Sun, The Moon and a parliament of owls (puppets) that join together to make an Almighty Owl. Casting was opened to all theatre students at Eckerd, and several roles have been cast with a voice performer and physical cast member. Thonen and Rapp Pearl shipped green paper to cast members to turn country manors and urban Victorians into the same setting.

All the audio and video was provided to Corrao’s class on Wednesday, giving his students one week to weave together a complete performance for viewers to experience Rapp Pearl’s vision. Even with all its fantasy elements, Into the Wind remains essentially a story about connections.

“It’s really obviously about seeking connections in various forms. That is what everyone is doing, and that is valid and real,” Rapp Pearl said. “Wanting to be seen and be needed is human, and everybody will be connected to that especially.”

Smiley said she hopes her first and last performance at Eckerd becomes another bridge of connection for the far-flung community during a crisis.

“Theatre is still necessary. You need art. You need some happiness, and you need distractions from all that is going on,” she said.