Headshot of Elsbeth M. Collins

A production faculty dispatch from Els Collins

In light of recent circumstances, the USC School of Dramatic Arts has asked our faculty to share honestly with our community, about difficult discoveries, small victories, silver linings, and more. As we learn and grow as a community, staying connected is very important to us, and we hope you will find these dispatches comforting in uncertain times. Our second letter comes from Els Collins, Associate Professor of Theatre Practice and Head of Production.

Dear community,

I miss campus. I miss our students and my colleagues at the School of Dramatic Arts. But today, I wanted to share some of the bright spots of the work that we’re seeing from our students, staff and faculty in the production area.

I hope you will read Celine Kiner’s report about the intrepid cast of The Secret Garden, mustering themselves to do one final run-through. The closing of our spring productions has been a crushing blow to all: there is a collective disappointment felt by actors, stage managers, designers, technical directors and support staff in the shops. But we are resilient: very quickly, faculty has reworked what it means to “tech a show” in the virtual realm.

Students in the School’s productions are members of two classes, THTR 397/497 or THTR 130. These classes represent very diverse populations. THTR 397: Theatre Practicum is where actors, designers, stage managers, technical directors all work collaboratively to mount a physical theatrical production. This class links their classroom learning in the actualization of a script. THTR 130: Introduction to Theatrical Production students work as crew members in various areas of supporting the live production during the lab portion of the class. They might be assigned as deck crew members, or lighting or sound board operators, follow spot operators, or costume crew members.

In the COVID-19 universe, the tech process evolved, with the central event being a virtual meet-and-greet. Students, staff and faculty have adopted to the Zoom classroom with impressive flexibility and speed. The meet-and-greet events have unified the production/design students and actors in a way that I’ve been excited to see, and will undoubtedly carry forward when we’re back on the ground. Stage managers have communicated with all production participants during these events with their usual aplomb, efficient and capable as ever. Not only are the THTR 130 crew members invited, and the cast and designers, but the circle has widened to include all production/design faculty and the Artistic Director.

Our production students continue to have weekly production meetings via Zoom. The platform (barring geographic distance and occasional internet connectivity issues) provides an inclusive environment where we have had substantive conversations about how these assignments have changed. Several shows, particularly Fuente Ovejuna: A Disloyal Adaptation and The Secret Garden, came up quickly on their tech rehearsal after the spring break recess.

One of the steps instituted for the post COVID-19 THTR 397/497 students is a mandatory paper tech. During a paper tech, the stage manager and director talk through the process of what each moment of the show looks and sounds like with lighting, sound, and projection designers. We’ve adopted a virtual version of this assignment: in the virtual paper tech, all designers attend, which allows the team to strategize scene shifts and any quick costume changes that are expected, providing a more complete view of the operation of the show. This spring, adjunct lighting faculty member Josh Epstein provided access to his company’s software Cue List for the use by the designers and stage managers. It’s an elegant, intuitive software which the students adapted to easily in the tracking of cues in their paper tech (The Secret Garden). It’s definitely a tool that they might not have encountered as broadly had we not moved to the virtual production sphere.

The meet-and-greets have been poignant and extremely uplifting as well. These gatherings, in a healthier time, would have been a big circle-up on stage in the Scene Dock (Fuente Ovejuna) or in the lobby of the Bing Theatre (The Secret Garden), for introductions from everyone. In the virtual meet-and-greet, the THTR 130 crew members and casts are able to see the overall design concepts described by the designers. The THTR 130 students have been bolstered by hearing about the designers’ inspirations and complex processes. Jennifer Weiske, crew member on The Secret Garden, shared her thoughts below (edited for clarity):

What I had realized in concept but really hadn’t considered in the real world is that coming up with the design ideas is really only the beginning…  It’s one thing to see those in a textbook and see them in class and think “oh, that looks like it takes a lot of work,” and quite another to see them representing an actual show with designs that you see pay off in images later on. The fact that every single light needed to be accounted for and labelled properly on the lighting plot, complete with gobos and everything else, in order to fit the design idea they were going with, with those specific colors but also creating the proper mood for every scene – it really impressed on me the amount of special reasoning and troubleshooting that goes along with it…

What was really impressed upon me by realizing what I would have been doing in tech was the magnitude of a show, and the importance of everyone involved. Although beforehand I knew that crew was incredibly important, it’s hard to realize that if one person isn’t paying attention, the entire show suffers for it. Theatre truly is an ensemble piece beyond just the roles the actors play…  We all rely on each other to make the show go up, and everyone must do their part to the best of their abilities… Everything relies so heavily on everyone doing what they should be doing, and you can’t undersell the importance of every single person.                             

Don’t get me wrong, the virtual execution of the semester’s remaining shows is bittersweet; what we do in the theatre is intensely human and intimate. I look forward to our return to the stage and the live circle-up of each of our participating members as soon as it’s safe to do so!

If you’re a faculty member and would like to share, please submit your dispatch letter to sdacomm@usc.edu.