The class project, “Silver Lining,” was one of the first reintroductions of IU theater students to the physical stage this year. The production took place Friday and was composed of five short musical numbers: “Revenge Party,” “Mein Herr,” “Mama Who Bore Me,” “Another Day of Sun,” and “Money.”
Each musical number was about five minutes long with one song as the focus. The light design for each production was done by a different graduate student and each number was performed by different dance classes. The musicals had different themes, providing students with different challenges to match the music and dance.
The last in-person musical theater production, “Crazy for You,” was scheduled for April 2020 but was abruptly canceled and later recorded in mid-March 2020. Since then, students in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance have been unable to perform in person outside of their classes.
Allen Hahn, an associate professor of lighting design, called “Silver Lining” the production that could only happen in a pandemic because it was a compromise between being on stage again and complying with COVID-19 safety regulations. The production took place in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre. The students wore masks and continued to socially distance on stage and in the audience.
Hahn has been waiting for the opportunity to have productions in the theatre again. The “Silver Lining” series was meant to be a project for Hahn’s five graduate students to demonstrate their lighting design skills. His students began working with the lights in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre, the largest theater they could work in.
“We kind of created a giant laboratory for ourselves,” Hahn said. “This semester, we used that laboratory to do experiments. The fullest of them was last Friday.”
Hahn said each five minute musical was performed twice to allow group discussion between the two performances. After the first run, the two groups of students would reflect on what went well and what did not. After the second run, the undergraduate students had the chance to hear from the lighting design students about their approach.
Hahn chose not to invite an audience to alleviate the pressure of an opening night and emphasized that the production was a learning experience for everyone involved.
“We kept the audience out of the equation in order to reap the maximum pedagogical benefits,” Hahn said.
Hahn collaborated with Lauren Haughton Gillis, an assistant professor of musical theater, who recruited her undergraduate students to dance and sing. She used choreography practiced in her dance classes in the five shows. Her colleague DJ Gray helped her choreograph parts of the dance numbers. Gillis said it was overwhelming to see her choreography on stage.
“To safely do it on stage in masks under lights, it was exhilarating,” Gillis said. “After a year and a half, to see a full production number come to life with lights brought tears to my eyes.”
Gillis said in the fall, she and Hahn briefly brought up the idea of having a project where students in different areas of musical theater could collaborate.
“I really like that it showed our students that theater is collaborative and you need others, you need to work as a team," Gillis said. “The more we can show that in the classroom — not only in our performance, not only in our main stage musicals — if we can show that day in and day out, then I think that we’re onto something.”
Gillis believes this project exposed her students to the technical side of theater. She said many actors are often unaware of the lighting designers they work with.
“You’re just a bunch of dancers in the dark if you don’t have lighting design,” Gillis said.
Justin Smuz, a senior studying musical theater, danced in the “Revenge” number and recorded the performances for the performers to use for their portfolios. Smuz said the experience was the closest he has been to a full production since the spring of 2020.
“That day in the theater was overwhelming in the best way possible because it has been over a year since I have been on stage with a full team helping out,” Smuz said “Having those lights added in reminded me why I love doing what I do.”
Hahn and Gillis said they are both interested in the possibility of doing a production like this again on a regular basis for their students. Gillis agreed that giving students a performance space without an audience would be beneficial for all students studying musical or technical theater.