While all departments suffered from online and distanced learning during the academic year of 2020-21, VIU’s Theatre Department was struck a unique blow when the university was closed in March 2020. Students performing to live audiences from Malaspina Theatre’s stage could not be easily replicated over a Zoom call.
Despite the circumstances, the department rose to the challenge in characteristic style. It’s impossible to talk to one of VIU’s theatre professors for more than five minutes without being struck by how innovative they’ve been in the face of the pandemic and how much they care for their students.
As the Theatre Department approaches the challenge of safely reopening this semester, Eliza Gardiner, chair of the Theatre Department and manager of Malaspina Theatre, hopes to convey an attitude that is “creative, resilient, and understanding.” She says she is grateful to return to the traditional territories of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and reopen Malaspina Theatre this fall as a “living classroom” of diverse, scholarly, and creative events for VIU students.
The theatre’s reopening will be gradual and initially exclusive to VIU students. The department tentatively hopes to reopen to external groups for events such as scholarly readings, dance recitals, or live music by spring 2022.
The Theatre Department will comply with all Phase Three COVID-19 protocols and VIU’s own safety protocols. As a result, Malaspina Theatre will be operating at a 50 percent occupancy in the fall, with 150 people allowed in the theatre and 100 in the lobby.
During the fall 2020 semester, the majority of theatre classes were online with a very specific safety plan in place for the theatre building. Acting and theatre history professor Ross Desprez found teaching acting a challenge over Zoom, with the group work being “impossible” and two-person scene work “doable … but very disconnected.” However, he found his theatre history class adapted well to the Zoom format and that it became a social interaction that he and his students looked forward to.
Desprez acknowledges the still “restricted” nature of this upcoming term, but feels that he and his students are “eager to get back at it” in a safe manner. His main goal this semester is “to find ways to provide challenging and interesting opportunities for the students.”
Pre-pandemic, the Theatre Department would typically put on two feature shows each semester, with an additional smaller play in the fall, and a one-act festival in the spring. This fall, they are hoping to produce the play-within-a-play from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream—but with a twist.
Desprez has reimagined the beginning of the play, titled A Drama Class’s Dream, about six drama students who are told they will fail their class if they can’t perform Shakespeare. While more modest in size and budget than the department’s usual productions, they’re hoping to keep the play lighthearted, funny, and flexible. They also hope to tour the show to local high schools in the spring.
Described as 80 percent Shakespeare and 20 percent original material courtesy of Desprez, A Drama Class’s Dream promises to be VIU’s fresh, yet classic, return to traditional theatre performances this fall.
Acting and theatre history professor Leon Potter commented that no matter what performance a person puts on in these unprecedented times, be it Hamlet or an Oscar Wilde play, people will ask how it was produced during a pandemic, or how it relates to the pandemic, rather than the play itself.
When asked if the theatre should lean into this, or attempt to take attention away from the pandemic, he said, “Ignoring it would be foolish.” Potter points out that no one can enjoy a play if they don’t feel safe, and stresses the importance of a COVID-safe audience for the integrity of the art being performed. He mused about the possibility of a production of Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare in the spring. Potter described the play as taking place in plague-stricken England, starring nobility who cling to their traditional roles in a society that is falling apart.
It seems timely.
Potter met the acting-via-Zoom challenge by teaching monologues last fall, then by working with a new 360-degree camera in the spring. This semester, he anticipates more short film work.
In the spring 2021 semester, some small, appropriately-distanced classes were held in Malaspina Theatre, but even this return to traditional classes presented challenges for students studying from out of town. Stagecraft professor Robin Boxwell approached this hang-up by rigging up iPads on students in the theatre so that the ones unable to physically attend could feel included in a non-static fashion.
As a self-proclaimed “glass half full” person, Boxwell met the challenge of the 2020-21 school year with creativity and optimism. It quickly became obvious that the learning environment he provides his students is a collaborative one, and that he works hard to listen to his students’ perspective on what they care about and what they think the Theatre Department should be doing. While he acknowledged everyone prefers the traditional theatre experience, he had a lower dropout rate than he expected over the 2020-21 semesters.
Boxwell observed that because of the pandemic, more people than ever are expressing their interest in going to the theatre. He wonders if the world is on the edge of an art boom.
As if in anticipation, Malaspina Theatre did not sit stagnant over the past eighteen months. Many of the lights in the theatre have been replaced with eco-friendly LED ones. Boxwell pointed out a new multi-coloured lighting rig in the lobby that he and his students put up over the past year. Boxwell is excited to put it into use during lobby events this semester, such as murder mystery nights, singer-songwriter performances, readings with creative writing students, and perhaps even a masquerade party on Halloween (it is unknown if any theatre phantoms intend on crashing the event). He would love for individuals from all of the Arts and Humanities Departments to attend some of these events.
Realizing people are still nervous about COVID-19, Professor Boxwell envisions these events as drop-in. People can walk by the theatre lobby, determine if they’re comfortable with the current occupancy, then come in if they wish to do so.
Over the distanced-learning semesters, the theatre students tried streaming performances on Twitch and Facebook, podcasting, and blending virtual and live performances, with some actors on stage and others on screen behind them. While he doesn’t count the last one as a success, it’s clear that Boxwell is not only willing to experiment and fail, but that he is excited to do so.
Incredibly, second-year student Henry Falls remotely programmed the lighting for one of the theatre productions from Calgary, his handiwork shining in a theatre he hadn’t stepped foot in that year. He thinks it will be interesting to see how such technical possibilities change the landscape of theatre in the future.
Although quick to admit it was challenging at times, the theatre students were up to trying different delivery methods during the online semesters. Theatre graduate Jenna Leigh Morgan says, “It was hard not being able to have our main stages because I feel that’s where a lot of our hands-on experience comes into play.” She added, “There were positives too. We were forced to be more creative and innovative which I think at the end of day is what theatre is all about.”
This type of out-of-the-box thinking manifested itself in a Dracula radio play and an online murder mystery show. The Satyr Players, VIU’s student theatre club, envisioned and produced these alternatives to live theatre with support and staging from the department. Despite their efforts, the Satyr Players struggled to find interest in their online productions, especially in the fall 2020 semester. Student Christopher Carter said, “I can’t blame anyone [for] not being interested, as they were trying to focus on their lives, which in a year like this is understandable.”
The experience improved with the spring 2021 semester when some classes were allowed to be held in the theatre again. In that same semester, the Satyr Players streamed a play written by Morgan and directed by fellow theatre graduate Linda Dohmeier. I Feel Everything was performed in Malaspina Theatre with the appropriate COVID-19 restrictions and was streamed online. Expressing her gratitude for the hard work of everyone involved, Morgan said, “The experience as a whole was great, and although I had a different image in my mind when I wrote it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
The theatre students had mixed opinions on how the 2020-21 academic year was handled, but a common thread was their appreciation for the department’s efforts.
“Theatre to me has always been an in-person thing, which made this year more challenging,” Carter said. “I know the faculty tried their best to make this year work and I respect them for trying.”
“Acting online sucks, there’s no way around that,” Kyla Van Ryk, president of the Satyr Players, agreed, but she brimmed with admiration for the “amazing” theatre professors, citing Boxwell and Potter’s efforts to get students into Malaspina Theatre as much as possible in a safe and COVID-19 protocol-compliant manner.
While acknowledging the pandemic-sized wall the Theatre Department faced, and stressing the instructors’ “incredible” and “innovative” effort, Morgan felt that tuition should have decreased along with the in-theatre experience during the 2020-21 school year.
When asked for final thoughts on his experience in the Theatre program, Falls stressed how well he thought the professors handled the 2020-21 semesters. He said that he’d heard some professors felt they could have handled distanced-learning better, but he absolutely disagrees, saying they did the best they could under the circumstances.
Van Ryk states that she is “so hyped” to return to the theatre program this semester. Falls is also excited to return, and to touch the theatre equipment that he’s only ever seen on his computer screen. This semester, Van Ryk and Falls, the only returning second-year theatre students, look forward to weekly coffee nights in the theatre lobby, and hope to offer events ranging from board games to student art sales (100 percent of profits going to the artist).
Van Ryk stressed that the Satyr Players aren’t only focused on theatre; they hope to create spaces that will bring people together after almost two years of being stuck in their basements. While she missed the traditional university experience as a whole, Van Ryk found a great community with her fellow Satyr Players over the distanced semesters. With the first-year enrollment rate going from four students in fall 2020 to around sixteen this semester, that community promises to live on and expand.
Even as it stands empty, the history of community cannot be ignored in Malaspina Theatre. From the prop of a ship helm from a turn-of-the-millennium performance of Titanic: The Musical hanging just out of the audience’s sight over the stage, to the inside jokes scribbled on backstage lockers, the theatre is alive with what its students and professors have left behind.
But perhaps the most striking feature backstage is the mural that takes up almost an entire wall in the dressing room. A comedic mask and a tragic mask lie in the forefront of a flowering field on a bright day. Painted by students during the 2020-21 school year, it serves as a poignant representation of the department’s resilience in the face of the pandemic. VIU’s theatre program may be working towards returning to pre-COVID-19 operations, but throughout the pandemic, the spirit of the program has not once wavered.