Determined to provide talented students opportunities to perform while COVID-19 prevented live performances and required masking and social distancing during the 2020-21 academic year, St. Ambrose University Theatre professors dug deep into their wells of knowledge, experience and, especially, creativity.
What emerged were beyond-the-textbook lessons in cross-disciplinary critical thinking, unique solutions to unprecedented challenges, and remarkable, thought-provoking and intriguing artistry.
In the fall of 2020, the Theatre program and SAU students teamed with KALA Radio to produce a radio-play version of Henrik Ibsen's time-honored An Enemy of the People. Directed by Professor Corinne Johnson, PhD, the production earned a first-place national award for Best Radio Drama at the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System Conference in March.
Last spring, Theatre Professor and Chair Daniel Rairdin-Hale '04, MFA, conceived an ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet. In collaboration with faculty and students in the university's Art, Digital Filmmaking, and Engineering programs, Rairdin-Hale directed a videotaped version of the bard's tragic love story using student voice actors and shadow puppets.
Previously released online in three individual episodes, Romeo and Juliet - A Web Series in Shadow will be screened in its entirety for the first time at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 17, at the Galvin Fine Arts Center on the SAU campus. Tickets are $8 and on sale to the public at the door and ShowTix4U.
KALA, the public radio station at St. Ambrose, will rebroadcast the performance as a radio play in the coming weeks.
"It's a different kind of performance," Rairdin-Hale said. "Shadow puppetry has origins dating all the way back to the start of theatre but it's not the kind of theatre that we do a lot of here. We announced we were going to stage Romeo and Juliet before we knew how long this pandemic was going to last. So, we adapted. I was committed to telling the story of Romeo and Juliet. I think it's an important and interesting story for these times, when there is a lot of tribalism."
While the play's central theme is the age-old clash between class and culture, the creation of Romeo and Juliet - A Web Series in Shadow truly is a study in interdisciplinary collaboration and campus-wide support. The shadow characters were designed by Joseph Lappie, MFA, a professor and chair of the SAU Art and Design program. The puppets were created from book board in the Maker Lab of the Engineering Department. The videography was provided through the Digital Filmmaking program which Rairdin-Hale also chairs.
"This rendition features the vocal talents of students, alumni, faculty, and staff from across campus," he said. "It truly was an interdisciplinary production, utilizing equipment and relationships in departments as varied as Engineering, Theology, Theatre, Music, Art and Design, and Kinesiology."
Senior Becky Meissen voices the role of Romeo and was among 15 students who served as puppeteers. She said the production provided rich, varied and unanticipated opportunities for learning and growth.
"I've worked with little puppets in the past but I've never done shadow puppets," she said. "It was really cool to work in that flat 2D format. It was interesting figuring out how to get them to move behind the screen."
Likewise, revealing character and emotion strictly through voice inflection and intonation forced her to learn a new kind of acting. "It was fun to take a step back and just work with your voice instead of being on stage," said the student, whose previous acting experience includes lead roles in high school and community productions in her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.
Like so many students over the past 18 months, Meissen and her fellow students especially learned the importance of adaptability, ingenuity and resilience.
Those lessons continue to reverberate as Meissen, Rairdin-Hale and others prepare to bring SAU Theatre back to the stage in November with two full weekends of performances of the fantasy comedy She Kills Monsters.
Rairdin-Hale said the set design challenges will include creating a 24-foot, five-headed, fire-breathing dragon. "As our first live show in almost two years, we want it to be big and impressive," he said, but adaptive challenges also include being prepared for ongoing restrictions surrounding the unfinished pandemic.
"We're talking about if we need to be masked on stage, how can we incorporate those into costumes," he said. "Because there are monsters and goblins and demons in this play, it might work to put a face covering that has teeth on it or that has zombie flesh, yet actually works as a protective mask, too."
It's all part and parcel of the critical thinking skills fostered by the Liberal Arts foundation within an SAU education.
Pandemic be damned, the show must go on.
And, as the Theatre program transitions to a minor that will continue to produce programming in which students from across campus can participate, Meissen said imaginative resilience will help the program thrive.
"I think it just goes to show there are so many ways to produce theatre," Meissen said of her unique learning experiences at St. Ambrose. "Theatre is going to be around a long time. We're always going to figure out ways to make our art happen. We're really good at adapting where we need to."