IU’s theater scene has transitioned from live performances to virtual theater during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local theater companies have offered radio plays, virtual performances and opportunities to view socially distanced productions during the warmer months. All performances through the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance were moved online.
Over the weekend, the on-campus theater group University Players presented “Murder Ballad,” directed by IU students Cassia Scagnoli and Nik Folley. This marks IU’s first indoor theater production since the pandemic began.
The socially distanced performance took place Friday and Saturday at the Grand Hall of the Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center. Groups of two sat at one of the 15 tables surrounding the staged area. Temperature checks were given prior to the beginning of the show, and audience members and performers were required to wear masks.
University Players is a student-led theater organization at IU. All productions are free admission with the goal of making live theater accessible to all, according to the organization’s website.
Michael Winner, a junior in the musical theater program at IU, said he feels lucky he was able to be in a live production.
“It was a really cool opportunity to do something in person,” Winner said. “A lot of people are doing things virtually now, so this was a lot of fun.”
The cast of four actors rehearsed three times a week in the basement of one of the production team member’s homes. Actors wore masks and gloves, and doors were open to increase ventilation in the space. Winner said the show presented unique challenges due to its indoor nature.
“Singing in masks was hard,” Winner said. “We had to wear inserts so we could breathe, and it was definitely an adjustment.”
The show normally includes touching and intimate scenes, all of which were changed for the purposes of the distanced production. During intimate scenes, actors would each grip the ends of a blanket and drape it over their heads to imply sex or kissing.
“We were able to find ways to represent that without doing so,” Winner said.
“Murder Ballad” is the story of a woman named Sara, played by Sierra Shelton, who dates a chaotic bartender Tom, played by Noah Marcus, that leaves his rowdy ways for a conventional life with Ph.D. student Michael, played by Michael Winner. After they marry, Sara has an affair with Tom that turns deadly.
Kyle Mason, artistic director, said the group chose the season during early March and had to adapt each show to the weather and severity of the pandemic. Their first show this year was an outdoor production, and their next will be outdoors as well. The group normally does six shows annually but is only doing five this year.
“We knew we wanted to keep this show because it’s small and we thought we could do a different format with it,” Mason said.
Cassia Scagnoli, director and a senior in the musical theater program, said this was the first show she’s ever directed. Scagnoli said it was difficult for herself and the production crew to overcome the challenges of producing theater during a pandemic.
“The show initially started as a film,” she said. “We went through many other forms of media to try and make this happen.”
The group eventually decided performing in person would be the best way to put on the production.
“We went through a lot of changes, but I’m happy with the way it turned out,” Scagnoli said. “I’m really happy to be able to bring this to people right now.”