In this PAST PRESENT FUTURE, C. Patrick Gendusa, Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance at Loyola University, tells us what was happening at Loyola when things shut down, what’s been going on there recently, and what its future plans are.
Tuesday night, March 10, I received a text from Dean Kern Maass of the College of Music & Media (CMM) stating that he needs “all hands on deck tomorrow morning.” I thought to myself, as my heart sank, this cannot be good. The next morning, all the CMM Chairs met with the Dean and were told President Tetlow would be announcing that afternoon that all classes are cancelled for the remainder of the week and we are moving entirely online on Monday.
The Department of Theatre Arts & Dance was a week out from opening night of the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret directed by Bryan Batt and Tom Cianfichi. I tried every possible way to not have to cancel the production, but there was no other option. I knew, at that moment, that I could not just contact the students and say everything was over. I had to give them an opening night. I notified the entire department and said “Be at the theater tonight for a 7:30 curtain…we are doing Cabaret!!”
What happened in a matter of hours was nothing short of a miracle. The entire design team worked non-stop until 7:30pm. Technical Director Duncan Becker oversaw all technical aspects with a furious passion. Lighting Designer Mandi Wood worked on lighting cues and making the stage glow. Costume Designer Kaci Thomassie sewed finishing touches with love to as many costumes as she could. And Set Designer David Raphel tried to make all the moving parts of the set work perfectly. This true dream team put an entire week of teching the show into a matter of hours! They, among others, are true unsung heroes.
The cast of Cabaret (photo by Cristian Orellana)
That night Cabaret happened with lights, set, costumes, and a partial band! I walked out on stage and welcomed everyone with “Well, ain’t this some shit!” The energy in the theater that night was amazing.
Cianfichi watched the show from the back row, pleased with the cast and crew’s performance. “I think that they did an incredible job, under the circumstances,” he said. “Well, even without the circumstances, they did a great job. But they just did a performance with lights and costumes having never worked with lights or costumes before, and they really rose to the occasion.” Cianfinchi added, “I feel terrible that they’re going to be robbed of their actual opening night and the run of the show, but we did the best that we can, and I’m very proud of them.”
The cast had their opening (and closing) night and the next day we all parted. When we left that night around midnight we thought we would be back in just a week or two. We did not come together again for 7 months, but what a night that was!!
The fall semester started with a wonderful addition to the department. Sal Mannino joined our family as the new Artistic Director. Sal and I have been friends for 19 years. I was his high school theater teacher. Our relationship has grown from student/teacher, to friends, brothers, and now colleagues. It was a very special reunion.
Sal could not have joined us at a better time and I would not have survived this semester without him by my side. We had many conversations about “How in the hell were we going to teach theater with everyone wearing masks, social distancing, and the possibility of staying online until January?” Still, we were determined to keep theater live and alive!!
Sal especially wanted to make sure that our students would have as much of a “normal” experience as possible at a time when so much had been taken from them. To that effect, he had the brilliant idea of joining forces with the NYC-based company Theatre for One, which he had previously worked with. Theatre for One immediately came on board when Sal reached out to them and were so supportive of our efforts.
Theatre for One is exactly what the name says — theater for one actor and one audience member at a time. In partnership with them, the Department decided to present five of their previously commissioned works, each running about 5-10 minutes, in five different locations around the Loyola campus under the title Theatre For One: For This Moment.
We also wanted to bring the past & present together and so we hired 5 Loyola Theatre alums to direct, one for each piece. Monica Harris, Jessica Lozano, Constance Thompson, Bari Bellard and Eduardo Ramirez were welcomed home with open arms. To have them here again and sharing their talents with our current students made my heart smile. It was such a special experience during a time of uncertainty.
Helen Jacksh, our Creative Director, was another godsend. We wanted someone to oversee the project and we knew her love, passion, organizational skills and all around fabulousness was just what was needed.
Sal and Helen chose several plays from the Theatre for One catalogue which they then shared with the directors to see which ones spoke to each of them. The plays chosen could be played by any actor as they were non-gender/race specific. In addition, Sal and Helen explored locales all over campus and presented those options to the directors as well. The directors then chose a performance spot that they believed best captured the feel of their piece.
Auditions were held virtually and actors were cast prior to the actual selection of the Theatre for One playlets. This process is not as is normally done in theater, but has anything been done normally over the past 8 months??!!!
Rehearsals began virtually and then transferred to in-person. Throughout this process, virtual workshops with the Theatre for One NYC team were held for all involved. Our directors were guided through the process by the original Theatre for One directors in NYC. There were workshops for the actors and several for the entire team. We would not have been able to afford this incredible experience had it been done in person given the travel expenses, housing, etc. for the NYC artists. At least, one good thing about the pandemic is that it is providing us with a number of virtual, inexpensive opportunities.
One special point of pride is that even those students who remained at home learning online were able to be part of the production. We did not want any student to feel that they could not participate because they were not physically here. One of the works was thus pre-recorded using those students, a total of six, as actors.
Isaiah Jones in Theatre For One: For This Moment performing for an audience member
When it came time for the performance itself, each audience member traveled alone with a Company Guide who led them from micro-play to micro-play, giving them the opportunity to experience live theater again in a safe environment. Only twice did we have to perform inside due to bad weather. We did the exact same show, but simply spread it out throughout Monroe Hall.
Overall, Theatre For One: For This Moment ran incredibly smoothly thanks to our awe-inspiring students, faculty and staff. Of course, there were a few minor glitches. If an actor did not feel well (for any reason) they had to stay home and not attend rehearsals or the performance. While normally it would be a nightmare to lose an actor like that, fortunately, having 5 actors cast in each role made that a non-issue. A few students did have to quarantine during rehearsals due to possible exposure to COVID-19, but luckily they were all fine; after testing they were allowed to return.
Working under these circumstances with people who love and care about each other and who want the best for each other made all the difference in the world. When the only option seemed to be virtual or bust, we enabled our students to participate in something they will never forget! Although it was challenging, Sal and the entire Department made live theater happen when it was not happening anywhere else in town.
The Department will continue to produce theater in new ways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic while respecting the safety of all involved and adhering to COVID restrictions. We intend to present all our season offerings as originally planned. Now is not the time to stop creating theater, but a time to find ways to continue doing theater. Offering only virtual theater is not an option for us.
The Spring 2021 season will feature three productions: Tori Sampson’s Cadillac Crew (Jan. 28-Feb. 6) which lends voice to the now-silent female pioneers of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement; Diana Son’s Stop Kiss (Mar. 5-13) a love story refracted through a hate crime; and Head Over Heels (Apr. 16-24), a toe-tapping celebration of life, love, and self inspired by a 16th-century romance and featuring the music of The Go-Go’s.
Our entire season was chosen prior to the pandemic (with the exception of Theatre for One). We still want to commit to these works, but must find the way to do them safely. Nothing will be done without masks and of course social distancing. Everyone is required to wear masks while on campus. This includes actors, audience, tech crew, and all others involved with the shows. Our audiences will be seated 6 feet apart which will greatly reduce the number of patrons allowed at each performance.
We are still figuring out what our specific approach will be for each show as things seem to change daily. It’s our goal as an educational institution to train our student-artists to be resourceful and inventive even in the toughest of times. As Sal stated, “The Department’s main focus is to provide opportunities for students’ growth and development.”
We are also thrilled to welcome performer/choreographer/educator Justin Prescott as our Artist-in-Residence for the next year. Justin was in the original Broadway production of Head Over Heels and was appearing in Moulin Rouge when Broadway shut down. He decided to move to NOLA and we took him in! He will work with our students throughout 2021 on master classes, workshops, musical theater, and dance courses. This is a fantastic opportunity that would never have happened without the pandemic. Good things do come from bad situations!
Despite all the challenges of teaching and producing theater during a pandemic, there is a sense of gratitude throughout the whole department. It has been beyond exhausting, but our wonderful students give us life and a reason to get up every morning.
We are grateful we are still here. We are grateful we are together. And we are grateful to be a part of a university and community that encourages us not to give up! We are theater people. We will adapt and we will survive this TOGETHER!!!
C. Patrick Gendusa is currently the Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance at Loyola University New Orleans where he teaches Acting I & II, Directing I, Advanced Directing, Musical Theatre I & II, Fundamentals of Speech and Senior Colloquium. His productions of Godspell and The Christians received Big Easy Awards for Best University Production. Other shows he directed which received nominations in the same category include A Girls Guide to Chaos, Almost, Maine, Blithe Spirit, Patient A, and And the World Goes ’Round.
Article taken from: https://www.ambushmag.com/trodding-the-boards-november-17-2020/