She knows she’s nailing this seven-minute comedic monologue. She hasn’t messed up a single word, and each punchline is more hilarious than the last. As she glances into the crowd and pauses for laughter, the light hits her just right to reveal a twinkle in her eye. This is what she was meant to do.
But when senior theater performance major Samantha Reed stares beyond the stage, no one’s there looking back.
Chapman University’s Musco Center for the Arts is empty, except for a handful of cast and crew. No one’s laughing at her jokes. She pauses again for imaginary laughter as a camera records her every move.
“We didn’t know yet whether we were going to edit in laughter and audience reactions, so the director told me to just hold where I naturally felt to hold for laughter,” Reed said. “How horrible would that be if I hold for laughter and it’s just dead silence?”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chapman last spring, the Department of Theater — which typically produces three shows each semester — was forced to transition to virtual performing, a not-so-typical experience for theater majors.
Izzy Kaplan, a freshman theater performance major, doesn’t know any different. So far, she’s been involved with two shows at Chapman: one through Zoom and one recorded in small groups with no audience — the same show where Reed gave her monologue to an empty room.
“Theater can actually happen during a pandemic,” Kaplan said. “Who would’ve thought that we can create something so magical under such strict guidelines?”
This show, Theory of Relativity, premiered in April, but was recorded during a rapid, three-week time frame in January. Although most shows in the department of theater were forced to remain on Zoom, with social distancing, small group filming, and some tricky editing, Reed and Kaplan were able to act on stage again.
“Even though it wasn’t an actual production where we were going through the entire show at one time, we got to experience the film aspect in a theater realm,” Kaplan said. “I don’t know when I’ll get to experience that again.”
Despite only four people allowed to perform on stage at once, the show’s crew was able to record multiple takes of different groups performing and edit them together, making the performance look like a dozen people were on stage at once.
“It was definitely a wild process,” Reed said. We rehearsed the whole thing in a month, which is pretty unheard of for a musical. There were times definitely that I thought it wasn’t going to happen and it was crazy to attempt this during the pandemic. But, everybody pulled it together, and we did it.”
While theater performance and screen acting majors focus more on stage production and shows, theater studies majors take a more traditional class approach in the department of theater.
In more lecture-based classes, a lot of theater studies majors don’t have as much of an opportunity to participate in hands-on acting and directing classes, including the main stage shows. Especially during the pandemic, these rare opportunities can be easily taken away.
“Of course, during the pandemic things changed a lot,” said Maddie Macloud, a senior theater studies major. “Acting classes over Zoom were an enormous transition. I took it especially hard because fall of 2020 was actually the semester I finally got to take some more advanced acting classes, as well as having my first directing class experience.”
Although the pandemic clearly affected the theater shows and productions, for those students that have difficulty earning roles in theater’s department’s major shows.
“It’s frustrating to not be able to experience directing bodies in the same space,” Macloud said. “It’s a very different experience to what we’ve been doing. That being said, the faculty and students have really tried to push forward and maintain artistry.”
Shayla Jamieson, a junior theater studies major, echoed a similar sentiment.
“Obviously getting a theater degree on Zoom is not ideal and we’re definitely missing out on what we could be and should be learning in a physical class, but I do think that the teachers are doing a good job trying to translate everything over to Zoom,” Jamieson said.
Moving forward, the department of theater hopes to return to regular, in-person performances with an audience in the fall, but that decision is entirely based on health guidelines from both Chapman and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“We are looking very much forward to being back in person,” said John Benitz, the theater department chair. “We are planning on a full, in-person production season next year, which I’m really excited about … Even if we have to oppertate at 35% or 50% capacity, that’s a big improvement from 0%.”
Tamiko Washington, a professor and program director for the theater department, explains how although the Zoom environment has made it more difficult for theater students to learn and perform, they have gone above and beyond her expectations.
“It has taken its toll on the students in terms of the stress and anxiety, but the students have been such troopers,” Washington said. “They have been fantastic in dedicating themselves to the rehearsal process on Zoom, and they also have been quite professional about it. They all could have raised a big stink about it, but they didn’t.”
When Reed looks back on years in the Department of Theater, which ended with her staring into the void with rows and rows of empty chairs, she remembers the community over everything else.
“The environment and the community of people are so fulfilling,” Reed said. “That was a huge part of my experience here.”