Among the professions hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the performing arts have been near the top of the list. Theaters and concert halls around the country have been shuttered for months with no end in sight. In Clemson University’s Department of Performing Arts, the normally boisterous hallways and rehearsal spaces in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts have gone quiet as classes and workshops moved online.
Back in August, and undaunted by reality, the department asked a key question: Would it be possible to put on a show in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown? Clemson’s performing arts faculty and staff made it their mission to figure out a way.
Fortunately, they held an advantage over most: The natural creativity and passion that leads people into the performing arts in the first place.
Led by associate professor Shannon Robert, the The Clemson Players made it their mission to produce a play that would lend itself to the current physical-distancing culture, entertain an audience, and provide students with the top-level education and experience expected from Clemson’s performing arts programs.
“The goal is to keep giving students an education and do something collaborative that keeps them safe,” said Robert. “We were originally doing a musical, but we knew we weren’t going to be able to do that in our space or safely, so we had to come up with something new.”
Director of theater Matthew Leckenbusch suggested the 2000 play The Laramie Project to fit the bill.
The play is about the events surrounding the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6, 1998. It was created through a unique collaboration between Laramie residents and the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York-based company that develops new plays through a rigorous process of research and collaboration in a laboratory environment. Residents portrayed in the play knew Shepard or were affected by his death and the criminal trial following his death.
Founder Moises Kaufman and nine members of Tectonic Theater Company traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the town’s residents, beginning just four weeks after Shepard’s death. The interviews were transcribed, edited and pieced together to create a narrative that could be told live on stage. The result is a series of short, powerful scenes featuring more than 60 characters, with actors playing multiple roles.
Clemson’s theater faculty realized the structure of the play lended itself perfectly to the times.
They obtained permission from the Tectonic Theater Company to film the performances, edit them together and release the finished piece online for a limited time, meaning Robert and her team would essentially be producing a movie instead of a play.
“We chose The Laramie Project because most of it is monologue-driven and the nature of the interviews would allow one person in most shots, so we could film the actors with their masks off safely,” said Robert.
In September, the team assembled a cast and crew of 43, composed of 28 students and faculty, staff, alumni and community volunteers, and set about the herculean task of making a film . . . despite none of them being filmmakers.
“No matter,” Robert told them at the first rehearsal. They were all storytellers, and this would simply be a different way to tell a story.
The group met and rehearsed via Zoom several times before breaking into groups of one or two to rehearse each scene individually online with Robert or student associate director Jason Culbreth, a biology major and theater minor.
Next, Robert directed the filming each scene at different spots on campus and at multiple businesses and churches in the Upstate that kindly offered their properties, including The Pint Station in Easley, Robinson’s Funeral Home and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, adhering to the strict physical-distancing guidelines set by Clemson’s Student Health Services.
Senior performing arts major Ashley Cooper, who switched titles from stage manager to production manager for the project, became certified as a COVID compliance officer to keep the actors and crew safe during filming. She also had the daunting task of scheduling each rehearsal and film scene. Typically, the company would rehearse together once a night for several weeks before opening, but in this case, Cooper had to schedule dozens of separate rehearsals at all times of the day and night to accommodate each actor’s work and class schedule – and that was before scheduling 51 separate film shoots.
“Everyone wants to be compliant so in terms of that it hasn’t been difficult,” she said. “Any time that we’re indoors and two people are unmasked at the same time is the highest danger level. But we take all the proper precautions with filtration systems, distance and time limits.”
Both Cooper and Leckenbusch were certified by Health Educational Services and completed the COVID-19 compliance officer training used by the event industry. Between the two of them, safety stayed at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“Everyone is tested and their temperatures are taken before they are allowed on set, and only the actors are unmasked during shoots,” said Robert. “If people are closer than the six-foot distance inside, the HEPA filters and air purifiers are running, and there is a time limit on that close proximity.”
Being forced to produce a film instead of a live play had a serendipitous effect on all involved. The general opinion was the strange nature of creating this kind of theater during a pandemic pushed everyone to step outside their comfort zones and gain experience they never would have otherwise.
“It’s definitely the case that we’re making the best of a very challenging situation,” said Christopher Sauerbrey, a freshman performing arts major who took on the job of sound designer for the project. “This has given me some interesting opportunities to try out a different medium. Sound design for film is something I’ve been interested in, but it’s been difficult to pursue, so this gave me a unique opportunity. In acting class, we talk about ‘finding the door’ – which means figuring out how to use what you have to tell a story. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Sauerbrey spoke during a break in the filming of one of the most difficult scenes in the play, involving members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church picketing Shepard’s funeral. The scene calls for a group of 6 to 10 people, so they filmed it in the Brooks Center’s empty staff parking lot, spacing the actors at least six feet apart while their masks were off during the scene, and keeping their masks on when the camera wasn’t rolling.
“It’s definitely opened my eyes to the different ways the things that I know how to do can be applied,” said Cooper, who is using the production as her senior thesis project. “We all think this story is important, and we’re a group of people who are passionate. I think that’s what’s going to make it great.”
Madi Wakefield, who normally does lighting design for Brooks Center productions, researched lighting for film and reached out to faculty, who put her in touch with some professional lighting designers in the film industry. She said she has been in constant contact with them via texts and emails.
“We’re really being challenged as artists, to see how flexible we can be to create art that is not in our usual venue,” said Wakefield, who recently edited the Clemson Players’ devised production of Love, 1918, and is the lead editor for The Laramie Project.
“This has been an incredible experience. I’m 100 percent getting my tuition money’s worth.”
Senior Austin Wilson, who has been a constant presence on stage at the Brooks Center during his time at Clemson, said stepping in front of a lens instead of an audience helped him grow as a performer.
“I’m a hard-core stage performer, so it’s been a challenge dealing with all the distractions,” he said, speaking between filming scenes while leaning on a bike rack in the middle of campus. Robert, Cooper and Wakefield did their best to keep groups of students from wandering into the shot or ruining the seriousness of the scene by laughing or talking loudly as they walked by, but Wilson still had to stop and restart his monologue several times.
“Most of us are used to a three- or four-week process, but for this we got one or two rehearsals for an hour over Zoom and then it’s, ‘Ok, see you on set. Be ready!’” said Wilson, laughing. “We’re literally having to learn on the fly how to make a movie. It’s a crash course, but that’s my favorite way to learn: By doing instead of just talking about it.”
Robert is hopeful the experience of a live performance will be maintained in the film, even though the medium has proven to be a more difficult challenge than mounting a live play.
“This is not what we do. The best part of theater is the collaboration and being in the room and working through moments and discovering. Well, we haven’t been able to be in the room so we’re taking the stuff we know about theater and trying to become filmmakers without all the proper equipment,” she joked.
“Our goal is to do our work in the most efficient and effective way we can to give our audience the thought-provoking, deeply moving experience of this play — all while putting safety first,” she said. “No story is more important than the safety of those telling it.”
The Laramie Project will be streamed on Vimeo. “Tickets” are available via the Brooks Center web site. Admission is free or pay as you can. Tickets can be reserved at any time, and a link will be sent to those who sign up one hour before “curtain” of the scheduled performance. The play will be available for viewing from November 30 to December 7.
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