Charly Evon Simpson’s new play On Loop, which premiered at the end of February 2021 at Barnard College, marked the fourth and latest installment in the New Plays at Barnard initiative, founded and led by the play’s director, Alice Reagan. On Loop was drastically different from any work Barnard has produced in the past: it marked the theatre department’s return to in-person production and required a range of special precautions and innovations.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Barnard had staged wholly virtual work on platforms ranging from Zoom to Switcher to vMix. But, like subsequent departmental productions, On Loop resulted in a unique blend of Zoom and in-person theatre. Beginning in late January 2021, actors and team members were able to rehearse in the room together for the first time since the sudden shutdown of campus last year. As the dramaturg, I was part of the team that adopted a hybrid model, which allowed us to incorporate virtual participants—one actor, our assistant director, the playwright, and many members of the design team—along with seven actors and a limited creative team live on site. Though rehearsed in-person and performed live from a theatre, the performances were streamed out to a virtual audience via Zoom with nobody in the room but actors and technicians.
This new way of working was not without its challenges: there were countless ways in which we had to reinvent the wheel in order to adhere to COVID protocols. All Barnard community members wishing to access campus during the spring 2021 semester (and beyond) were enrolled in a program of frequent testing and health screening. Mask wearing and social distancing were required in all spaces. This applied to the rehearsal room, too. Masks were worn (as they were for performances), distanced blocking was enforced with the use of measuring sticks, and a stage language was developed in which cast members tossed props to one another to maintain distance when passing objects was required. “I did not want to emphasize the fact that the actors were distanced,” Reagan said. “I wanted it to look as ‘normal’ as possible.”
A moment in the play that, under different circumstances, would have been an unremarkable stage direction—an actor taking a sip of water—became deeply symbolic of what we were working to do. Alone onstage, the main character, Jo, played by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, brought her mask down, took a drink of water, looked around, and brought her mask back up again, which allowed both herself and the audience a much-needed moment of pause. “That moment was the most normal in the play,” Reagan disclosed. “It almost made me weep because it was so normal. It wasn’t anything we had to surround or anything we had to take care of. It was just the truth. It was an actor taking a sip of water.”
Overcoming the technical and emotional obstacles we faced in adjusting to new rehearsal procedures required a focused effort and was no small feat. The hybrid structure posed technological challenges far beyond what we had anticipated. Initially, we had planned for me as the dramaturg to take on the additional duty of managing the computer, which housed our virtual participants during both the rehearsals and production. Since this Zoom was used by actors, designers, the playwright, and the assistant director, we opted for a multiple-camera view, utilizing several webcams to maximize visibility of the stage. Because of this, and because the sound quality was often poor—requiring those on Zoom to communicate via the chat function—I found myself immediately overwhelmed by the many moving pieces. To alleviate this, we hired Celia Krefter, a student who also worked as the assistant lighting designer, to manage the virtual participants and wrangle the technology required to allow them to be present.
Alone onstage, the main character, Jo, played by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, brought her mask down, took a drink of water, looked around, and brought her mask back up again, which allowed both herself and the audience a much-needed moment of pause.
As we moved into tech, we used a program called Discord, in addition to the traditional comms system with technicians on headset, allowing the virtual designers to communicate with those of us in the room via voice channels and a typed chat. This created the added challenge for those of us who were hooked up to the program, because we had multiple voices in our ears at once—another technological hurdle that Krefter helped minimize. Furthermore, according to Reagan, no one was operating at the top of their game because we were all anxious, sad, and worried. “Self-care and group care had to rise to the top in terms of what we were doing, and that was a challenge,” acknowledged Regan. “Another challenge was keeping 10 to 20 percent of my brainpower focused on the COVID strictures, which took away from feeling relaxed in the room.”