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PFW figures out how to present student theater productions

Newest musical to be filmed, then streamed

Michele DeVinney

Whatzup Features Writer

Published November 18, 2020

The protocols which led to so many artistic endeavors being canceled, postponed, or restricted have been a disappointment and hardship. For Purdue Fort Wayne students those changes are more than disappointing, posing a barrier between them and the opportunities they need to earn their degrees. 

Finding ways to adapt, to adhere to those restrictions while still providing those vital experiences to their students, became a serious project for the faculty at Purdue Fort Wayne’s Department of Theatre.

new world songs

“Prior to COVID, we had planned to do a song cycle called Edges by Pasek and Paul,” said James Stover, faculty member of PFW’s Department of Theatre. “As things began changing and it came to fruition that we wouldn’t be doing any professional productions, we started looking at other things we could do. As part of the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance, we were sharing ideas and finding potential in different types of productions. We started looking at streaming, but we couldn’t get the rights to Edges for streaming. I thought of Songs for a New World because I had done it in college.”

All of this began to take shape in June and July as talk of reopening was tempered by discussion of continued restrictions as the virus continued to claim more victims. 

It turned out that doing a song cycle was exactly the right approach to putting students back on a stage.

“The blessing of a song cycle is that it’s not necessarily a play,” said Stover, director for Songs for a New World. “There are never more than four singers on the stage at any time, and usually there are one or two so they don’t have to be masked until there are four of them out there and they can’t distance as much. 

“My goal and the reason I wanted to do Edges in the first place was that I wanted to give the students a different kind of experience and challenge them vocally.”

How to Return to Stage

Once the move to the new song cycle, Songs for a New World written by Jason Robert Brown, was made, then it became a question of how to proceed safely. 

Stover said he relied heavily on the Return to Stage Playbook developed by the American Guild of Musical Artists.

“It showed ways to keep everyone safe,” he said. “For the auditions it was me, the musical director, and one student at a time. For all of the rehearsals, we kept reading about what to do so we’d adhere to all the safety measures. We’d go to having two at a time and then four was the max. It was mostly about keeping people separate and safe.”

Stover credits costume designer Jeanne Pendleton with designing masks which were both functional for the singers and stayed in place as they sang to provide the most safety for the participants. He credits her scrupulous research for making it possible, and he said he had to learn a few new skills as well.

“Filming it for streaming was a challenge for me,” Stover said. “There were a lot of logistical elements which I was not well versed in. It was complicated in ways that I didn’t imagine it would be. 

“I also had to tell the performers that we weren’t making a film, we’re doing a performance in front of the camera which is different. We’re not looking into the camera. Instead the camera is like an audience member watching the production.”

Silver lining

Although everyone would prefer for the performance to enjoy a live theater audience, Stover is hoping there may be a silver lining to the streaming option.

“I’m hoping alumni who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see it might get to see it in this format,” he said. “In an archiving sense, it works well to have it to keep. I’m just grateful that we got to do this show as close to normal as possible.”

How future productions will proceed, particularly in the spring semester while things are still so unknown, is still up in the air, but Stover is happy that if he couldn’t stage Edges as he first planned, Songs for a New World, which addresses the notion of a “new world” as young people face a moment of decision, is filling the void in a very prophetic way.

“The show was written in the ’90s and deals with topics of people in their 20s,” Stover said, “and it’s interesting to hear what comes out of the mouths of these young people about the state of the world. It’s mind-boggling how much it addresses what’s going on right now even though it was written long before any of this was happening.”

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