By Kristin Agostoni, Assistant Director of Media and Public Relations, Loyola Marymount University

Zoom screenshot from LMU’s Shakespeare on the Bluff festival (photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

Zoom screenshot from LMU’s Shakespeare on the Bluff festival (photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

In the early months of the pandemic, when it became clear that Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU) annual Shakespeare on the Bluff festival could not go on as planned, Artistic Director Kevin Wetmore began to pivot. He wasn’t sure how his current and former theatre students would react to joining virtual productions on Zoom and not performing to an audience on an outdoor stage. But the response he received was overwhelming.

“When I put out the call to work on this project, people came out of the woodwork, including alumni,” said Wetmore, professor of theatre arts within LMU’s College of Communication and Fine Arts (CFA). “They said, ‘My shows have been canceled, there are no auditions. I’m an artist and I want to share my art, even if it’s online.’”

“So,” he continued, “the limitations of the pandemic have actually created an opportunity to work with and showcase incredibly inventive and talented actors.”

That statement holds true not only for the virtual Shakespeare on the Bluff festival, which presented two plays this year, but for other 2020-21 LMU Theatre Arts Department productions that have moved onto the virtual stage since the pandemic shuttered on-campus performance venues.

They include She Kills Monsters, a Dungeons and Dragons-themed show; the dark comedy Mr. Burns — A Post Electric Play; Haunting of the Hannon, a Halloween-themed takeover of LMU’s Hannon Library; and A Night of Black Excellence, a celebration of Black art, Black stories and Black lives in collaboration with the student group, Theater in Color. This month, the department presented the plays Love and Lysistrata, a fast-paced comedy inspired by Aristophanes’ play.

Performers and faculty members, while missing the stage, are finding many advantages to performing online, from learning new special effects, to improvising with props, costumes and lighting from home. Another upside: online performances make theatre available to people who might not otherwise be able to attend shows on campus. “The accessibility to live performance has never been more important than it is now. As we find ourselves more and more isolated, our need to tell stories to and with each other is essential to nurturing and maintaining our humanity,” said Katharine Noon, professor and chair of theatre arts.

“Whether we are participating as audiences, performers, designers, directors or writers, our need to create community through live performance is an essential part of our lives,” Noon added. “Until our hearts can beat together in the same space, we will continue to tell stories in any way that we can and to anyone in need of coming together around the virtual campfire.”

Zoom screenshot from LMU’s Shakespeare on the Bluff festival (photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

Zoom screenshot from LMU’s Shakespeare on the Bluff festival (photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

Shakespeare on the Bluff helped chart the course for LMU’s transition to virtual productions during the pandemic. The online festival was conceptualized by CFA Dean Bryant Keith Alexander, who brought the idea to Wetmore. With the support of LMU leadership and help from Information Technology Services, the festival’s third season – which featured performances of All’s Well That End’s Well and The Two Noble Kinsmen – began to take shape in late spring/early summer.

“The plays were handpicked for this current historical moment,” Alexander said. “Both needed light-heartedness (from the previously projected summer season) with some mixture of fairy tale and a cynical realism that invites us to reflect on virtues and vices of people and the times; always locating ourselves in the social realities of the plays that are both make-believe and make-belief.”

The productions – which together attracted roughly 1,500 YouTube views – featured a cast of students and alumni from all across the country. All were welcome to RSVP for access to the free, family-friendly 90-minute shows.

Even though the festival was nicknamed “Shakespeare in a Box,” Wetmore stressed that the computer screen should not be seen as a limitation. Zoom offered cast members a chance to be playful and innovative, and to use whatever they had at home as props, knowing the styles would mix and match. Wetmore explained that the platform also allowed for some special effects, such as using display names to announce characters, and giving some performers the chance to sit farther away from the screen, appearing to be in the distance.

Kylie Sullivan, a theatre arts major who has performed in four virtual productions at LMU, added that the use of virtual backgrounds in Zoom can help to unify characters and tell a story. It is easier to do this online in some ways, she said, because not as much muscle is required to change a set.

“There has been so much that I’ve learned from doing theatre over Zoom,” said Sullivan, who was the steward in All’s Well That Ends Well and Nell in Two Noble Kinsmen. “I learned the importance of text work and table work in regard to Shakespeare. It was even more crucial that we knew what we were saying because we couldn’t express the text and story as much with our bodies,” she explained. “I’m a very kinetic actor who thrives off movement in my acting, so these two shows really pushed me out of my comfort zone in that way.”

To learn more about the LMU Theatre Arts 2020-21 Mainstage Season, please click here.