Performing arts groups are a staple of student life at Hopkins. It’s hard to imagine what life on campus would be like without weekend plans to attend The Rocky Horror Picture Show, laughter-filled nights in Arellano Theater with the Stand Up Comedy Club or plays produced by the Witness Theater and Barnstormers.
Yet this is the very reality that performers and audiences alike have been forced to accept due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since campus closed down in mid-August, the Merrick Barn has gone dark, the Swirnow Theater has closed and Arellano has taken on a desolate silence.
The University’s announcement that the fall semester would be completely online posed a unique challenge to theater groups, one that they had never encountered before, much less anticipated.
Senior Harry Kuperstein, chief strategist for the Stand Up Comedy Club, stated that the biggest challenge was not being able to perform in-person, at least for this semester.
“Stand-up thrives off of an audience, and when you’re deprived of that, the art form really becomes kind of, not obsolete, but it definitely loses what makes stand up special, in that it’s a shared experience where everyone’s laughing together and relating to what the comic’s saying together,” Kuperstein said “And we don’t really have that anymore.”
Senior Alex Hecksher Gomes is a head writer for Throat Culture, the University’s only sketch comedy group. At first he wasn’t sure if Throat Culture would be able to put on any shows at all.
“I didn’t expect there to be more shows unless they were in-person,” he said.
However, for some groups, it was the timing of the announcement itself that was the cause of significant difficulty. After all, the University released its plan for the fall only mere weeks before the first day of school.
Senior Ritika Kommareddi, president of the Barnstormers, recounted that uncertainty over the University’s plans for the semester caused significant delays in the group’s own plans for productions and budgets.
“We didn’t get our budget for the semester or what the plan for what our budget was supposed to be until a couple weeks ago, and usually, at this point in the year, we would be a week or two from putting on the show, whereas we are literally starting auditions this weekend,” she said.
An additional concern, she said, revolved around the recruitment of freshmen.
“What I was most worried about was how our freshmen were going to integrate into the group because obviously in-person theater and being together physically is such an integral part of what we do. So I was definitely trying to think of ways to get them as involved as possible without that in-person benefit,” she said.
Carter Brady, a freshman who recently joined the Barnstormers, echoed Kommareddi’s statement about the challenge of staying involved with student organizations amid the pandemic.
“I am a person that relies a lot on in-person social contact for making friends and forging new connections, and as a freshman and a new member of the Barnstormers, it has been challenging to get to know people, even though everyone in the group is so nice and wonderful, just by virtue of Zoom being kind of an exhausting medium,” Brady said.
Many theater groups were forced to respond quickly to the conditions of the pandemic. Leaders from these groups have had to imagine creative ways to transpose the magic of theater to an online modality.
One such leader is junior Apara Kashyap, the executive producer for Witness Theater. For Kashyap, the pandemic presented an opportunity to focus on the unique aspects of Witness Theater (the live production of student-written plays) within the confines of a digital campus.
This took shape in the form of a new, online playwriting workshop.
“Our writing coordinator is handling that, and we have an alum of the group coming in to help. So we’re having new and returning playwrights write and workshop short plays together to build confidence in play-writing, expose people to what the writing process looks like and help people just output work regardless of whether they want to see it performed or not,” she said.
The Dunbar Baldwin Hughes Theater Company has also been hosting acting workshops on Zoom and YouTube. In addition, just like the Barnstormers, the improvised comedy group the Buttered Niblets recently held auditions, presumably for an upcoming improv show.
Some groups have found that the online modality of their productions has even revealed new possibilities for performance, opening up avenues for formal innovation.
Hecksher Gomes said that Throat Culture recently decided to begin recording and editing their performances.
“All our shows are recorded now, but some sketches are still in a Zoom format, just pre-recorded. This gives more flexibility with editing and perfecting the takes, and you can do weird edits and shit like that with the fact that it’s recorded, giving you a little more creative exploration,” he said.
Throat Culture’s recent online show can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
According to Kashyap, Witness Theater has begun producing “Zoom webinars,” which are digital versions of their shows performed through Zoom.
“We really wanted it to be live in some way, because live theater is at the root of what we do. With Zoom webinar, we’ve been able to incorporate sound effects, we’ve been able to incorporate virtual backgrounds, which obviously isn’t as good as sets per se, but still kind of something to set the visual mood, so to speak,” she said. “We’ve been able to play with people coming in and out, people being present but still being able to hear their voice.”
Like Witness Theater, the Stand Up Comedy Club is also hosting its own Zoom shows.
“We’re doing Zoom shows, so that’s definitely an adaptation. We’re also doing YouTube Live and definitely trying to be on multiple platforms to be as accessible as possible,” Kuperstein said. “We also started a TikTok where we’re gonna try and post certain jokes to try and make our content bite-sized and approachable.”
Kommareddi added that the Barnstormers, in lieu of in-person activities, has implemented a new mentorship program for freshmen and is currently producing an audio-only production of Little Women which will be compiled into a podcast.
What is interesting about the Barnstormers’ response to the pandemic is that the group turned an issue around the recruitment of freshmen into a boon for podcast production.
“Ordinarily, we have something called the freshman one-acts, which is when we have upperclassmen directing first-years in a short one-act and then we have a showcase in October just to show off our freshmen. What we did this year is that we turned it into more of a mentorship program, and we’re calling it Theater Introductions for First-Years, or TIFYs,“ Kommareddi said. “I think we’ve recruited around 22, 24 freshmen, and a lot of them have been getting interested in auditioning for our fall mainstage Little Women, and a lot of them are really excited about doing tech for it, acting for it, doing production for it.”
For new students like Brady, these kinds of opportunities for engagement have become a source of solace amid what can be an isolating college experience.
“The adaptation to college is a challenging thing, and the complications that come with online learning — being at home instead of being on campus — make it more challenging in a variety of ways,” he said. “But Barnstormers and student orgs in general have been a good way for me to meet people and to get a break from the stress and challenge inherent in the transition to college.”
Theater is notable for its immediacy and emphasis on communication, not only between actors, but also between actors and members of the audience. Therefore, the persistent threat of a highly contagious virus has posed a particular challenge to this inherently interactive and social art form.
Yet at the same time, the pandemic has proved that the stage in which theater takes place doesn’t have to be physical; theater can transcend physical boundaries and connect people separated across large distances.
Sophomore Darcy Trinco is a technician for the Barnstormers and publicity officer for Witness Theater. Although it has been difficult to put on theater productions due to differences in time zones and home situations, the pandemic has also reaffirmed Trinco’s passion for theater.
“That was a really big challenge, just thinking, ‘Is it worth adapting? Is it worth doing all this work?’ And of course it’s worth it, but at the time it can seem like an impossible task, especially given the circumstances,” she said. “Just getting the word out there that we’re still Barnstormers, we’re still happening, we’re still a family and we still care about each other — that we’re still here, and we’re still going to work and put on a show and do the best we can to keep theater alive during this weird time.”