What happens when the student-run theater company at a preeminent technological university comes up against a global theater-closing pandemic? Well, the show must go on. Online that is.
DramaTech is staging its next performance, boom, live in streaming format starting Friday night. In recent months, numerous theaters have taken to streaming pre-recorded versions of stage performances or staging productions purpose-written for online delivery. The theater group at the Georgia Institute of Technology is one of only a handful tackling all the challenges that go along with the online adaptation of a play written for the stage.
Those challenges have included everything from learning how to rehearse over videoconferencing to questions of how to translate the immediacy of the live stage experience to a digital format, said Melissa Foulger, academic professional in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and DramaTech’s artistic director.
“For the first two weeks of rehearsal, the actors were quarantining, so they were in three separate locations,” Foulger said. “With the videoconferencing delays, everything just seems a tiny bit off rhythm. So it's taken a while to accommodate for things that you don't normally have when you're live in a room together.”
“But I’ve learned that these challenges are not as insurmountable as they might seem, and that you really can maintain that sense of liveness in this medium,” Foulger said.
Blending real life and digital
Boom! is about a young graduate student’s plan to repopulate the earth after a cataclysmic asteroid impact. DramaTech had planned to stage the production as its summer show on campus, but began preparing for the switch to streaming back in April.
The actors, three Georgia Tech students, will perform in front of webcams. Two of them, those portraying the story’s main characters, will perform together from an Atlanta apartment with a blend of digital and real-world sets. The actors’ roommates, all of whom are also involved in DramaTech, will serve as part of the technical crew.
They will combine the shots from the apartment and a third actor’s home in an open source broadcasting program, then send it out via a commercial streaming service.
“Preparing an online show has definitely been a unique experience,” said Will Nute, a rising fourth-year student in mechanical and systems engineering from San Diego. Nute is the play’s streaming technician.
“It's interesting to see how all of the departments, such as lights, sound, set, props, and costumes, are adapting to different needs and finding new ways to do their job,” Nute said.
For instance, set designers have to make sure backgrounds mesh well with camera angles and room layouts, lighting designers have to be conscious of how camera settings may affect greenscreen performance. Sound designers had to completely change how they wrote cues due to software changes necessitated by the shift to online presentation.
“Questions like, ‘How can we get the sound effects to play back to the actors as well as the stream?’ and ‘What's the best way to capture high-quality video feeds from a Zoom call?’ have been things the stream team has had to consider,” Nute said.
‘A Really Unique Experience’
Nute’s roommate, Austin Hughes, will play the part of graduate marine biology student Jules. Although Hughes has performed with other DramaTech outlets, including the improv troupe, boom will be the rising fourth-year mechanical engineering student’s first stage play since high school in Dallas, North Carolina.
Preparing for the role has been simultaneously challenging and fun.
“As a theater, we’re trying a bunch of new things that we haven't done before,” Hughes said. “But I think it's going to blend together in this really beautiful production that has so many intermingling elements of technology and acting. I think it will be a really unique experience.”
Foulger said the effort to go online fits with DramaTech’s personality — experimental and technology focused. Additionally, the lessons learned in preparing for this play could be used to stage future streaming productions, considerations Foulger and her students have worked into DramaTech’s upcoming performances. The work will also allow the Georgia Tech team to be a resource for other theater companies in Atlanta, helping them overcome their own challenges in presenting online productions.
“DramaTech is an interesting place because it's not just Ivan Allen College students,” Foulger said. “We have students from all over campus. And that affords us a lot of opportunity to be able to look at things in a different way, to encourage the expansion of theater from the traditional forms, and to enhance those with the technology and bring it to a current place.”
Tickets for boom are on sale now at the Dramatech website, www.dramatech.org.
LMC is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.