Written By: Michela Arlia
When Brooklyn College’s campus shut down one year ago due to COVID-19, students, teachers, and administrators were left with concern, not knowing when they would return. For the Department of Theater, this meant leaving behind two shows in the midst of production on the stages of the Don Buchwald and New Workshop Theater.
Two weeks after the campus’ switch to distance learning, the department originally planned showings of Small Mouth Sounds in the New Workshop Theater, as well as a production of Rhinoceros, which was set to open in the Buchwald just a month later.
With all of the ongoing uncertainty regarding campus reopening for in-person instruction, a decision on when these two productions will see the light of day still hangs over the department’s head.
“As SMS [Small Mouth Sounds] is currently sitting on the New Workshop Theater stage, it will be a priority to make a determination as to how we advance that production when we better understand when and how we will be able to start using the campus again,” said Kip Marsh, the Department Chairperson.
While the department intends to produce these shows fully, a challenge that Marsh foresees is the original cast and crew having graduated by the time the productions are ready to be shown to audiences.
“We do face the fact that a growing number of students who were attached to that project will have graduated and potentially [be] unavailable to continue with the project,” Marsh said in reference to Small Mouth Sounds.
For students, it was upsetting to see friends and fellow actors and creators not be able to follow through on their roles for these shows and not know if they will ever be able to. “At the time I was in disbelief over the pandemic in general, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like for everyone working on the project who had prepared for so long,” said BFA Acting Senior Francesca Manligoy.
Although, the chance of any of the students who have since graduated or moved on is in doubt. For recent college graduates, it’s hard to take any job or project that doesn’t come with a salary.
“I’m not sure whether or not those people [cast and crew]…will still be available to come back unless they’re paid, but if they are then great,” said senior BA candidate Jeremy Palmieri, “I only hope that if the original casts and creative teams return for their shows, the department still does other shows in that semester for their current students.”
The effects of the shutdown on these productions are still being felt today, especially key members of the crew.
“It was absolutely so heartbreaking for all of us when we couldn’t produce those shows when we were seconds away,” said Deborah Hertzberg, College Lab Technician and the costume shop supervisor for this department.
Hertzberg, who has been allowed back on campus a very limited amount of times to pull inventory, notes that it’s as empty as they left it.
“It’s like a ghost town, everything is the same way it was a year ago,” said Hertzberg.
Rhinoceros, another production that was in development before the shutdown, was set to be a unique experience for the department since the college had gained the rights to a new version of the play. Heloise Wilson, who received her MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College, worked to create an original translation of the play, which took six months to complete.
“As this was to be the premiere of a new translation of the script, we have an investment in seeing this production on the stage,” Marsh said.
Leaving the plays unshown left those most closely dedicated to them at a loss after losing in-person rehearsals and performances after only getting in three full rehearsals before the shutdown.
“I think that I am only now beginning to process the sorrow of not being able to follow the creative spark and collaborative momentum that had been set in motion with that stellar team of artists at that particular moment in time,” said Laura Tesman, the Undergraduate co-chair of the Theater BA program and director of Rhinoceros.
With the set just beginning to be built and the costume sketches in their early stages, Tesman says it all “feels a bit like a fossil suspended in amber.”
Despite the challenges of a virtual semester, the department has still been able to produce pre-recorded shows with students in each of the BA and BFA programs on Vimeo and Twitch for the past year.
Along with discovering new initiatives to continue theater training online, the department has tried to stay active by helping the community.
Due to a shortage of masks at the peak of the pandemic, Deborah Hertzberg assembled a team of students, alumni, and coworkers to make homemade masks from cloth and elastic. The team made over 200 masks for security guards, janitors, and other essential personnel who had to remain on campus.
While the initiative helped protect many BC employees, Deborah says there was a necessary and joyful effort in assembling the face coverings.
“Theatre has always saved my life, so here was an opportunity to use my skills to save others’ lives,” said Hertzberg.
Since specific plans for an in person semester have not yet been decided, there is nothing definite regarding what the Fall 2021 semester means for the Dept. of Theater, but Marsh says the productions that never got to be put on will be shown at some point in time.
“I don’t think that performance rights will be an issue for either production,” said Marsh.
While questions remain unanswered, the department will continue virtual productions and engage with students in any form possible.
“Rhinoceros and Small Mouth Sounds…remain on the list of suspended projects that we would like to come back to if we can,” said Tesman. “I certainly hope circumstances will align. If this year has taught us anything, it is to remain patient, flexible, and ready for anything.”