While the bright lights of Broadway and theater districts throughout the nation remain mostly dark, Allegheny College’s Playshop Theatre will stage an outdoor performance festival “Go Play Outside!” on three weekends in late September and October.
The festival is open only to members of the Allegheny community. It will be staged in the Vukovich Center Courtyard on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 4 p.m. The festival is scheduled for Sept. 26–27, Oct. 2–3 and Oct. 10–11.
The performances will include “Sure Thing” by David Ives, “Poof!” by Lynn Nottage, “Sea Wall” by Simon Stephens, “Chiaroscuro” by Lisa Dillman, “Habitat” by Ben Slote, “Virtual Distances” and “Will You,” both choreographed by Betsy Getschman Sumerfield, and “Where Is the Hope?,” which is a series of short plays on climate change.
In the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, rehearsing in a socially distant and safe environment has presented challenges for directors and the student actors alike.
Beth Watkins, Allegheny professor of communication, film and theatre, is directing three of the plays. “Chiaroscuro” is about a mother and daughter and how language can pull people together or push them apart. The actresses are experimenting with movement and verbal wordplay throughout the play. “Habitat” will be the premiere of a new work by Allegheny English Professor Ben Slote. It follows three birdwatchers in a western Pennsylvania field, on the lookout for a very secretive sparrow. “Sea Wall,” is a solo piece that is being performed by Rielly Steuernagel as part of his senior project in theatre performance. The play introduces its audience to the contentment of fatherhood, summer holidays and the abrupt drop to the bottom of the sea.
“Our goal in the Playshop is to produce live performances this fall in a way that is safe for the participants and the audience,” Watkins said. “We wanted actors and technicians to have a production experience and for audiences to be able to attend a play. So we’ve chosen several short plays, directed by faculty and students, as well as two dance pieces and a musical ensemble to present in an outdoor venue, the courtyard on the first level of the Vukovich Center.”
Seating will be limited to approximately 25 physically distant seats, and there will be four performances of each program over the three weekends.
“Our biggest challenge in rehearsal is less about maintaining physical distance — we’ve deliberately chosen small casts so, with a director, stage management team of two, and two to three actors per play, there are usually not more than six people at a rehearsal — but everyone is wearing face coverings, including the actors, and that has taken some work to get used to not seeing facial expressions or having mouths visible,” said Watkins. “We’ve been working on articulation and projection, since we are performing in an outdoor space, which is harder to control for ambient sound and weather conditions such as wind. Also, we’ve arranged the performance space into a thrust configuration with the audience on three sides, so that requires the actors to broaden their focus and movement so that audiences can see and hear them. It’s been a great learning experience for actors and directors alike, and our terrific stage management teams have been very helpful.”
The production staff meets regularly to review the safety protocols and ensure best practices during this unique process, Watkins said.
“Since we are performing outdoors on weekend afternoons, we have decided to rely on natural light. There will be costumes, limited props and small set pieces, and some recorded sound, but our emphasis will be on the live performance experience, with relatively little ‘design’ support,” said Watkins. “It is an opportunity to think about the earliest origins of theatre, in outdoor amphitheatres or on pageant wagons, and the essence of live performance, such as Lope de Vega’s ‘two boards and a passion.’”
Michael Mehler, Allegheny professor of communication, film and theatre, is directing several short pieces, about five minutes each, that focus on climate change. “I chose the specific pieces because they show people navigating human relationships at a time of crisis. It seemed like they’d reach audiences in this particular moment,” he said. “I have two sets of actors — each doing a group of plays. We’re trying to keep to pods to minimize possible exposure. During rehearsals, the biggest challenge has been to show intimacy without touching.”
That means the students need to act more with their bodies, since faces are less exposed and it’s hard to hear masked people from a distance. “We’re working on telling stories with movement and gesture alongside the spoken words,” said Mehler.
Also, he said, “we are incorporating one of our remote students — a first-year from Hawaii, Kaleialoha Froning — who will record a monologue that we’ll play back audio only during some of the performances. She and I are rehearsing the piece through video chat.”
Limited ticket sales are available by calling the box office at (814) 332-3414 or by going to allegheny.edu/playshop.
Main Photo: Rehearsals have been ongoing for “Go Play Outside!” on the patio of the Vukovich Center. Photo by Maria Cabrera ’24