by Lorie Lewis Ham
Fresno State’s Theatre Department is joining the wide array of theatre companies and schools presenting online productions for their audiences right now. Their first such production will be Darkside, which can be viewed beginning November 6. We spoke with Fresno State Theatre Professor Kathleen McKinley about this exciting new journey. Kathleen specializes in acting and directing.
KRL: How did Fresno State end up deciding to do a virtual show?
Kathleen: Fresno State approved only a tiny percentage of face-to-face classes for fall 2020. No audiences, no guests on campus, no students who are not enrolled in the few face-to-face classes are allowed on campus. My production laboratory course was approved for face-to-face, so I had to devise a production that could be shared with an audience virtually.
KRL: Why did you pick Darkside and what is it about?
Kathleen: I had a concept for a video production that would capture live action actors with the aesthetics of a graphic novel. Darkside is a little known radio play by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers of plays and movies, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s plays often include fantastical leaps of time and space, clever comedy, and thoughtful themes. Darkside centers on a college student, frustrated with a messed up world, who feels she just might have inside of her the answer to how to save the world, if only she can discover the correct words. She goes on a surrealistic journey through a world of thought experiments. What a perfect theme for these difficult times!
KRL: Is it a show originally written to be performed virtually or did you have to adapt it for being virtual?
Kathleen: I adapted the Darkside radio script into a live action video with action hero characters, collage illustrations, and animation. Professor Candace Egan of the Media, Communication, Journalism Department is my partner and collaborator on the entire project. In July, Candace and I began working on what grew to 200 storyboards as we envisioned the video. Candace even operated one of the three cameras. The illustrations and character drawings were created by my Theatre colleague, Professor Elizabeth Payne. Theatre sound designer, Regina Harris assembled a library of sound effects. The physical stage lighting was by Liz Walman. All these special effects would be layered into the video post-production, working together virtually.
KRL: How did you go about casting it? (in person, video?)
Kathleen: Students submitted video auditions and we conducted callbacks via Zoom!
KRL: Is the show filmed with everyone together, or separately and then put together? And what were the rehearsals and filming like?
Kathleen: Darkside was the first post-pandemic production at Fresno State, after closing down our theatres, shops, and labs in March. Very few college theatre departments are engaged in face-to-face production work, so we had to invent a production process that would minimize risk. Normally, around 50 Theatre faculty, staff, and students are involved in the behind-the-scenes preparation for a production, but for Darkside, only the 13 student actors, two stage managers, four camera and lighting students could be involved.
When we started at the end of August, there was no safe way to involve students in set or costume construction. Pencils could not be shared, let alone tools or sewing machines. Props could not be handled safely. Our dressing and make-up rooms were off-limits. There was no safe way to use personal mics or to conduct costume fittings. The university dictated very strict time limitations for the face-to-face interactions with the students. No more than 25 people total could be in the 350 seat John Wright Theatre at one time and we were never together for more than 3 hours. All pre and post production meetings occurred via Zoom!
Though the protocols were stressful, my cast and I were thrilled to be able to work together again. I rehearsed face-to-face with the 13 actors for about 14 rehearsals over 3 weeks, and then the camera and lighting operators were added to capture the actors performances during 8 nights of filming. I have to admit that I was always aware that at any moment, we might have to shut down due to circumstances outside our control.
I created rehearsal protocols that followed industry and university Covid guidelines. Before being cast, each actor agreed to follow strict social distancing not only at rehearsal but also in their personal lives. The campus was almost empty each night (at least parking was easy!) and we were the only group in the entire Speech Arts Building. We each had to stop at a temperature check station each evening. During rehearsals, we wore masks and stayed at least 6 feet apart. No sharing of snacks. A sanitizing station was provided. Rehearsal tables and chairs were sanitized each night and the entire stage was sprayed after each rehearsal. The theatre was shut down Friday-Sunday for deep cleaning. No other group was allowed in the space. I staged the students on marks positioned 12 feet apart.
During filming, no more than three actors, unmasked, were on camera at any one time. I, the camera and lighting operators, and other actors wore masks. The actors arrived at the theatre in costume and make-up. The actor’s “green room” consisted of labeled, isolated seats in the audience.
These were truly strange protocols for both rehearsals and filming, but the students adapted quickly to a “new normal!”
This weekend, Candace Egan and I are in the final hours of editing. My Theatre students acted face to face, and Candace’s MCJ students were engaged in the post production process virtually. Once filming wrapped, I reviewed and selected the shots, and then Candace, her students, and I were hard at work editing!
KRL: Were there any other special challenges that you faced?
Kathleen: In addition to everything else I have described, the wildfires created special challenges for many Fresno State students, including my cast. One actor had to miss rehearsal in order to help his family evacuate livestock.
KRL: Are there plans to do more shows like this?
Kathleen: Candace and I have mused that we might be up for collaborating on a similar project in the future, but, hopefully, with the return of a full stage crew, dressing rooms, and access to all the Theatre and MCJ facilities and equipment!
The cast of Darkside includes David Boutros, Nicolas Cherry, Joshua Clark, Reese Jade Herron, Krishan Joshi, Teya Juarez, Emily King, Andrew Mickelson, Tyler Murphy, R.L. Preheim, Julia Prieto, Anthony teNyenhuis, and Andrew Trevino.
Darkside will be presented online at 7:30 p.m. November 6-7 and November 10-14, and at 2 p.m. November 8. General Admission streaming access is $15. For more information, contact the box office at 559.278.7512.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors–many of whom you will have seen on local stages. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play, and also on Podbean. A new episode went up this week!
Check out more theatre articles & other local entertainment articles (including many more online/streaming shows) in our Arts & Entertainment section.