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Catholic university stages a ‘digital play’ amid quarantine

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by Perry West

Denver Newsroom, Apr 29, 2020 / 05:13 pm MT (CNA).- While the coronavirus has shut down universities and artistic events, the drama department of a Catholic university performed a play nevertheless, through a video conference.

A production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” was meant to be staged last week. Because of the pandemic, the Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art instead performed the play on Youtube.

Eleanor Holdridge, chair of the drama department and the play director, told CNA that the play was a blessing, allowing the students a break from isolation and bringing art into homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was great because it was something to be working as a group towards. It was something we didn’t have to give up and that we can have hope towards in the midst of this crisis,” she said.

“We sort of had a virtual cast party. We all watched it. It went live on the 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday. So the cast families all watched it together and then we kind of met up afterward to have a real cast party.”

The performance was not streamed live. Instead, each scene was recorded separately and then the actor’s scenes were placed side-by-side as if in a video conference. If the scene was a monologue, then the actor would appear solo on the screen. In between acts, pictures of the sets would appear along with music pieces composed by Roc Lee, a sound designer and composer.

The actors were encouraged to situate themselves in areas of the house with blank walls and good lighting. In one instance, Holdridge said, a student recorded himself huddled in a corner of the house to evoke his character’s imprisonment. Prior to the play, the costume designer video chatted with each cast member and then helped them pick out the best costumes from what they have at home.

She said the online play was also very challenging. While rehearsals usually go for about four hours, it was much more difficult to keep everyone on track while online, and the session had to be shortened. She also said the gestures of acting were too large for the screen and the actors had to focus heavily on speaking with only a little body movement.

As students were feeling distraught and isolated, she said, the play was a unique opportunity for the actors to get back into university life.

“[College is] about what you’re learning, obviously, but you’re also learning how to be your own person away from your parents and you’re learning how to be a member of society. You’re learning how to work with your friends and peers towards something,” she said.

“I feel like they very much needed to feel like they were working, not just with faculty but with each other towards a goal.”

Holdridge also said the event was an opportunity to promote art within the household during the pandemic. She highlighted the importance of acting as a promotion of empathy.

“The art of acting and theater … is a really wonderful way in which to teach or learn empathy. You can’t do what we do without feeling empathy … You have to imagine yourself to be many different characters or find the motivations of many different characters,” she said.

“So in terms of having empathy towards other people and not having a rigid scorn or scoff at other ways of being is, I think, one of the great things that theater is and what it can do.”

Marie Kottenstette, a senior English and drama major who played Isabella, said it was a valuable learning experience, and, although it was not ideal, it was an important opportunity.

“Being able to work and act, even if it isn’t exactly what we’re used to, was important,” she said. “I feel like we’re still learning and growing. We’re in college so we’re constantly learning and this was definitely a learning experience.”

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