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Saturday January 28th

'It hasn't been easy': UNC theater groups reflect on year of shifting to virtual shows

Screenshot from Company Carolina's Zoom production of Angels in America. This year, all theatre performances from UNC's various companies were held virtually. Photo courtesy of Hannah Fatool.
Buy Photos Screenshot from Company Carolina's Zoom production of Angels in America. This year, all theatre performances from UNC's various companies were held virtually. Photo courtesy of Hannah Fatool.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the virtual "Angels in America" performance to Playmakers Repertory Company. The show was produced virtually by Company Carolina this year. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person performances impossible, the Chapel Hill theater community shifted to virtual shows that made theater accessible to a wider audience than before. 

Theater companies had to be creative in 2020 to make sure the show would go on virtually. Each group produced performances a little differently. Some were on Zoom, others on Skype, some prerecorded and some livestreamed on Twitch or YouTube. 

Here's how those involved in local theater adapted to changes throughout the year. 

A new format

Michael Perlman, the associate artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company, said a lot of learning happens when an entire organization is outside of its comfort zone. 

“We're a theater company that's suddenly become a media company,” Perlman said. “And in a lot of ways, it's been invigorating, watching everybody really rise to the occasion. But I think, like for many of you students, it's been tiring and depleting as well.”

People also had to learn new jobs that they had never done before. 

Maria Cade, UNC Pauper Players’ executive director of production, said the work behind the scenes was different from a normal in-person show. 

“We had to edit and put together the entire show virtually before it could be presented,” Cade said. 

Ethan Sichel, a producer and treasurer for Company Carolina, said in-person shows are preferred, but performing online still has benefits. 

He said Company Carolina’s production of “Angels in America" worked well online because it had fantastical scenes they probably would not have had the budget to stage in real life.

Social movements on stage

Elizabeth Howard, the executive director and founder of Black Arts Theatre Company, noted that social movements have given more purpose to her art and pushed her to be an intentional artist.

“All of my art is fueled by the advancement and stories of Black people,” Howard said. “I have to be intentional with everything I create and present to the world because it carries the weight of Black folk everywhere. All of our pain, our struggle, our happiness, our moments of bliss must be presented accurately, thoughtfully and with good intentions.”

Because of the pandemic, Howard said her expectations of what the company could do had to change. 

New collaborations

Four companies created a UNC theater collaboration and put on student work throughout the year. The companies involved in the collaboration were student-run theater groups: Company Carolina, Black Arts Theatre Company, Pauper Players and LAB! Theatre. 

“This is the closest that all the student-run theater companies have been in a long time; we're just working together,” Aubree Dixon, a producer with the Kenan Theatre Company and director of publicity for the Black Arts Theatre Company, said. 

Anish Pinnamaraju, one of the executive directors at LAB! Theatre, said the companies thought it would be smarter to pool their resources together to create a series of student-proposed works, such as student-written plays and different workshops. 

Dixon said once the productions were chosen, there were still challenges of how to cast and learn scripts in a new way. She said they had video auditions with Zoom callbacks. 

“We were all in a giant Zoom room and they put us in breakout rooms to have our callbacks, where we would talk with the directors and the directors could see what roles they wanted us for,” Dixon said. 

Maintaining community

To battle stress and Zoom fatigue, Cade said the cast would often take breaks to be together.

“There were a lot of nights where we just sat around and played Among Us or chatted and sent memes, TikToks,” Cade said. “As much as the show itself was adapted from being in person to virtual, I mean, just the way that the cast and crew were able to create that sense of community also changed.”

Kathryn Hunter-Williams, PlayMakers Repertory Company's artistic associate and a member of the acting company, said this time has been all about adapting. She said it has been amazing to see people's determination, creativity and innovation. 

“One of the things that I think really came out is that people have really pulled together,” Williams said. “I mean, people have really tried to figure out in a world where we are really in a space that we know nothing about, that people have really made the effort, and it hasn't been easy.” 

Pinnamaraju said many people in the theater community still have doubts about online theater, and believe theater is currently dead and will not be revived until it can be in person again. 

“I think the theater we know is dead,” Pinnamaraju said, “but we are rewriting the definition as we speak. And so to those people who doubt online theater, I'd say wait a while and give us the chance to fix it. Or try it.”


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