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UNC performance groups navigate a return to the stage


Writing for the screen and stage minor students Lauren Ragsdale, Grace Siplon, and Christian Pressley rehearse 'Hand Me Downs' at the Swain Hall theater on Oct. 27, 2021.

Lizabeth Bamgboye, secretary of UNC's Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre, remembers how audience members reacted to her poetry performance at her first in-person performance in two years at EROT’s fall 2021 show, "Nightmare on EROT Street."

People came up to her and told her they connected with her poetry, Bamgboye said.

“That was when I've been really thankful of who I was then and where I am now,” Bamgboye said. 

While EROT and other groups were able to bring back in-person performances this fall, the journey to get back to this point was marked by virtual rehearsals and performances.

During the pandemic, performance groups at UNC have had to adapt their productions to stay safe. Like most campus activities, all UNC theater performances were virtual last year. However, 2021 saw a shift from strictly virtual, to hybrid, to in-person rehearsals and performances at the University.

EROT, Company Carolina and Kenan Theatre Company are just a few of the groups that found innovative ways to perform amid COVID-19 restrictions.

From mostly virtual...

While some groups were able to host in-person rehearsals or events during the spring 2021 semester, EROT — a spoken word organization focused on elevating, advocating and drawing from experiences and emotions of students of color at UNC — still met virtually, Bamgboye said. 

EROT held a virtual slam poetry open mic night called "Life like it's Golden, Golden" in collaboration with Collegiate Association for Artists of Color on March 18.

EROT also transformed its "Love" and spring shows into a combined virtual show filmed by former EROT president Jazmine Bunch following COVID-19 regulations. The show was later posted on YouTube and called "EROT in Wonderland."

KTC also stayed virtual throughout the spring 2021 semester with its virtual reading series of "Me Too Monologues," "Tragedy: A Tragedy," and "Nia" and "Short Play Series."

But Company Carolina hosted hybrid programming, producer and treasurer Ethan Sichel said. 

This past spring, Company Carolina hosted a virtual theater trivia night in February, an in-person performance at the Bell Tower Amphitheater and a one-woman performance that was prerecorded in a studio in Durham before distribution, Sichel said.

Company Carolina hosted its four-person performance in February at the Bell Tower Amphitheater, becoming one of the first groups to try performing in person again, said Ethan Sichel, producer and treasurer of Company Carolina. The performance was livestreamed alongside its live audience, made up of a maximum 20 people, all socially distanced. 

“I was really proud of us for taking on that challenge,” Sichel said.

To back in person

Like Company Carolina, many groups began to slowly transition back to in-person performances. EROT and KTC were also able to bring back in-person performances this fall.

Bamgboye said EROT had in-person performances, auditions and meetings this semester. The fall show was Bamgboye's first in-person show since joining EROT.

“It was just nice to see how far I've come as a writer and how far my fellow EROT members have come as writers,” Bamgboye said. 

This fall, Company Carolina was basically able to do everything in person, Sichel said.

“We had a lot of very strict protocols,” Sichel said. “So when people signed up to audition and came for callbacks, we asked that everyone was vaccinated and showed us their vaccination cards.”

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Everyone wore masks during rehearsals, and the company developed testing protocols, he said. 

Company Carolina was able to put on two fully in-person shows, “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang and “Onward, Chef Dominguez!” by Gian Gibboney.

KTC held its first in-person show since spring 2020 this November — "Anna K" written by Jacqueline E. Lawton and directed by Keyanna Alexander — said David Navalinksy, associate professor and director of undergraduate production in the Department of Dramatic Art.

Navalinsky said almost the entirety of the "Anna K" cast was new, and many of the people involved had not been involved in a full production yet.

“That was just really amazing,” Navalinsky said. “And to sort of step back and look at it and think about how much we've gone through in the last year, and the effort, the work that we were able to do with these students who hadn't gotten a chance before.”

Bamgboye said she is looking forward to EROT’s "Love Show," which the collective puts on every spring semester.

“I'm excited to be a part of it for the first time officially in person,” Bamgboye said. “So we're really excited for that one and just even more performances, even more times to just get our poetry out on campus.”

Despite all the restrictions, the past year has been marked by creativity, Sichel said.

“I'm a believer in that challenges breed innovation,” Sichel said. “And so I think it was frustrating being home or having a lot of restrictions doing in-person theater. I think it's also allowed us the opportunity to really be creative and explore the possibilities of theater and the capabilities of theater here at UNC.”