Theater without Togetherness

Reed Theatre virtually presents Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros

In a different year, ticket holders to a theater production at Reed would arrive at the Performing Arts Building (PAB) and file into the theater, where they would sit shoulder to shoulder with their fellow theatergoers, eager to witness a work of art put together by students and faculty. For many, one of the central aspects of theater is the physical togetherness of every party involved. But due to COVID-19, theater as it once existed has been rendered unsafe, and theatrical professionals all over the world have had to deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

The set for Rhinoceros, designed by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Caitlin Cisek. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

The set for Rhinoceros, designed by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Caitlin Cisek. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

Associate Professor of Theatre Kate Bredeson, who is directing Reed’s fall production of Rhinoceros, is no stranger to the changes that COVID has brought to the theater world as a whole, and its implications at Reed. Bredeson and Caitlin Cisek, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and scenographer of Rhinoceros, had already discussed producing the play in February of 2019, long before the pandemic.

Rhinoceros, written by Eugène Ionesco in 1959, tells the tale of a man named Bérenger as all of the people around him slowly turn into rhinos. An absurdist play, Rhinoceros can be interpreted in a variety of ways, which was part of the reason why Bredeson and Cisek wanted to produce it. 

“[Rhinoceros is] a play that’s a metaphor for many things, but one of the possibilities is about the rise of fascism, and we knew we were going to be making a show that would open around the election. We first had to decide, ‘do we want to continue to do that play?’ when we realized we weren’t going to be able to gather in person,” Bredeson recounts. 

Bredeson remembers feeling dejected about the magnitude of difference in producing a play when the company cannot come together and work together in person. However, Bredeson credits Cisek with helping her realize the expanded possibilities of putting on a theatrical production during a pandemic.

“Once we started thinking not just about what we’re missing… it got kind of exciting,” Bredeson said. “I would have never, in a theater, been able to direct a three act play and have each act in a different format. I don’t actually know of any other theaters problem solving like this.’”

From these conversations, Bredeson and Cisek were able to decide on a unique structure for the play. Act I, which was released on Nov. 6, takes the form of a podcast; Act II, which will be released today, Nov. 13, combines sound and images in a graphic novel with sound; Act III, which will be released on Nov. 20, culminates in a film. Not only do the different formats allow the company to experiment with modes of performance they’ve never engaged in before, but they also fit the narrative trajectory of the play.

“We came up with the idea of doing it all remotely, but playing with different ways to tell the story that mirror the arc in the play of the story,” Bredeson said.

Once the format was decided, it was time to put the production together. Technical Director Rusty Tennant recounted the challenges and excitement felt by the entire company at the beginning of the process: “How do we reinvent the wheel to accomplish [putting on a production]? The theater department has been really proactive this entire time and recognizes the joy in getting to explore this new world of theater that we haven’t played around in that much.”

During a typical year, Tennant would supervise a crew of around ten students who would assist them in building sets designed by the scenographer. Students would typically work in tandem with each other to build sets. This semester, the number of student workers in Tennant’s shop was reduced by half. 

A prop table set up for safe solo filming including sanitization supplies. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

A prop table set up for safe solo filming including sanitization supplies. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

Because there will be no audience, the safety efforts were focused on keeping artists safe when they were filming for Act III. Tennant made sure the studio theater had adequate PPE, sanitizing supplies, and airflow to keep individual actors safe, as well as securing the space so no one enters while a student does not have a mask on.

“Safety has shifted in terms of execution, but not in terms of priority,” Tennant said.

The company has also seen changes on an individual level. Cisek saw a huge shift in her role and responsibilities. As the scenographer, she was responsible for designing scenery and costumes in order to communicate the mood and emotional landscape of the play. Her biggest challenge was to recreate the togetherness of theater with her designs. For Act II, Cisek and the students of her stagecraft class cut and pasted images of actors onto backgrounds she designed in Photoshop, which she humorously refers to as “paper dolls.” 

Even though Cisek faced unique challenges in her work, she believes that the pandemic has made theater much more collaborative than it was before. Talking through all of the steps in the creation of images for Act II, Cisek noted the sheer amount of people who collaborated in order to create the images. She sees this collaboration in all aspects of the play, and she remarked that it differs greatly from the piecemeal approach that would be taken in a typical year.

“It’s that everybody’s… peering in on one another’s problems. So instead of meeting at the finish line, or the tech week, there’s been this progressive movement forward to creating the final product,” Cisek said.

On the acting and directing front, the biggest change has been the transition to using Zoom for auditions and rehearsals. Bredeson stated that every single aspect of acting and directing has changed. To address new challenges, Bredeson had to learn new technical skills that came not only with new forms of theater she had never directed before, but also directing those new formats via Zoom. 

“All this has been true for all of us,” Bredeson said. “We’ve been working completely out of our knowledge and skill sets, which has been really hard, and also really exciting,” she states.

Bredeson also worked to create community among the actors. The company hosted a socially distanced picnic, created a “buddy program” where upperclassmen are paired with first-year students in order to help the first-year acclimate to Reed and Portland, and incorporated a 30 minute block of time at the beginning of Monday rehearsals in order to catch up and check in with each other.

While it was important to build community among the company, Bredeson found it equally as important to support the community around the production as well. The company includes a dedicated community engagement team, and the production website includes a section about tying Rhinoceros to the larger Reed and Portland communities.

Cisek on set. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

Cisek on set. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cisek.

“We’re making the show during the pandemic, and for a while during the wildfires, and also during the Portland protests, which are ongoing, and many of the people involved in the show are involved in that,” Bredeson said. “So we’ve talked a lot about how the show can participate in the larger community both at Reed and in Portland and even beyond, and I think that’s something that has helped us build community but also help us think about the show, in a larger context.”

The production hosted a launch party on Oct. 30 to celebrate the upcoming opening of the play. While it was a celebration for the company and their friends and family, the event was also a fundraiser for the Reed Community Mutual Aid Fund, a student-run organization collecting funds to distribute to students in need. The production was able to raise over a thousand dollars for the fund. Bredeson highlights this community engagement work as something she is particularly passionate about and proud of with this production.

“One of the ways that we have created our own community is by thinking about the subject of community and how we can use our show to help uplift and amplify community work on campus and in our midst,” Bredeson said.

Despite all of the challenges and changes that have made theater look different than it has in previous years, everyone involved in the production expressed that the joy of creating something and working with other people remains. Assistant Director T.S. Wolff highlighted what motivated them throughout the production: “We remain storytellers, and we are trying to put something together that speaks to our time. And that can have a positive impact on the community. I feel like that’s really kept me going through the process, despite the long hours staring at a computer screen.”

Director Bredeson expressed that she hopes everyone–herself, the company, and the audience–will be able to derive some sort of meaning from the play. 

“It’s an absurdist play about a world that is off, and that feels really important and apt right now,” Bredeson said. “On another level, it’s just a kind of wacky, bonkers play about a bunch of rhinoceroses. I hope people can connect to it on both levels and find some joy and also think about the world we’re in.” 

Act I and II of Rhinoceros are currently available to view at Act III will be available on Nov. 20.

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Roy Dante
Roy Dante
2 years ago


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