When the pandemic suddenly brought the curtain down on UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) last spring, faculty and staff had to figure out how to pivot to virtual performances.
It was a pricey technological challenge. They had to buy laptops, software, monitors, green screens, microphones, and ring lights, and then ship it all to students so they could perform remotely from home.
Luckily, the theatre was able to tap into several UConn Foundation philanthropic funds – including the Hewitt Fund, the Nafe Katter fund, and the CRT Patrons Fund – to cover the $25,000 cost. Without the support of donors, this would be very difficult because of the significant loss of ticket revenue.
“Having the necessary funds to be able to pivot like this has been crucial because we just would not have been able to do it otherwise,” says Michael Beasley, the theatre’s interim managing director. “It just would have been impossible.”
When the pandemic forced it to shut down, the theatre had been two days away from opening night for a new production of “Men on Boats.” They had to cancel the show and all the other performances planned for that spring and summer.
This fall, they were ready to pivot. They decided to proceed with “Men in Boats,” but with a remote, livestreamed version. They renegotiated the play’s license, recast the performers, and brought back the director to adapt the play for a Zoom platform. Then they shipped props, costumes, background sets, and other equipment to the actors.
“Our actors are all over the country,” Beasley says. “UConn students come not just from Connecticut, but from New Jersey, California, Vermont, and Montana. Even coordinating rehearsals was challenging because, everybody was on a different time zone.”
Crucial to this transition was the purchase of powerful software that allowed technicians to take the Zoom boxes and place them in any order or position on the screen for the performance. As a result, they could place two actors side by side so they appear to be next to each other having a discussion even though they were hundreds of miles apart. Actors could even “hand” a prop from one Zoom box to another.
“We did this for ‘Men on Boats’ and the actors passed an apple around with one bite taken out by each actor,” says Interim Art Director Tom Kosis. “By the last Zoom box, the apple was just a core. The audience loved it.”
CRT, which normally performs in the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre, the Nafe Katter Theatre, and the Studio Theatre on the Storrs campus, is a regional theatre that serves as laboratory for teaching the dramatic arts to students. The theatre brings in some professional actors to act with and teach students, along with directors and playwrights who are getting work recognized in New York and across the country.
In addition to “Men on Boats,” CRT put on its first-ever radio play, a pre-recorded adaptation of the classic Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life” last fall. This spring, the theatre performed virtual productions of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” “This Property is Condemned,” and “Antigone” and will wrap up the season with “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” on April 22-25.