NACOGDOCHES, Texas – In a world where COVID-19 continuously throws obstacles in the way of plans and progress, the School of Theatre at Stephen F. Austin State University is moving forward in presenting its annual SummerStage Festival in a new and innovative way.
The play choice has been changed from the original lineup, and its delivery has been adapted as an online version. But as always in live theater, the show must, and will, go on in live, online performances at 7:30 p.m. June 30 through July 2 and in a recorded version the following three days. Online access can be purchased through the College of Fine Arts Box Office.
Changes in work structures this past spring brought on by the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to get in touch with publishing houses in order to obtain rights, or permission, to perform copyrighted plays. As a result, the School of Theatre decided to present a show in the Public Domain, and SFA Assistant Professor of Theatre Slade Billew decided on William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which he described as “one of my favorite plays.”
“It also seems timely,” said Billew, who is the play’s director. “‘The Tempest’ is a story of isolation and loss, but it is also about the power of life to continue and of humanity to recover. In the beautiful way that Shakespeare does, the script blends tragedy, comedy, songs and magic.”
Although “The Tempest” is a full-length play, Billew has cut it to approximately 90 minutes. The play will be “created” entirely over the internet, with rehearsals conducted via Zoom, and designers conceiving and creating work in their own personal spaces.
Billew and his colleagues are exploring existing and new platforms of delivery – specifically ones that will allow individual access through a donation to the School of Theatre as a means of recuperating much-needed funding that was lost by the cancellation of live in-person SummerStage performances.
“We are, of course, all still figuring this out, so there are a few possibilities,” Billew said. “We are going to perform the piece live online three times. Then, a recording that people can ‘rent’ will be available. It will likely be accessed through YouTube. Right now we are working with Zoom, but I have also been in conversations with LaMaMa/Culture Hub in New York who have developed a software called Live Lab specifically for this kind of work. They are planning to release Live Lab for beta testing in early June, so we are going to test it out.”
Theatre faculty is working with the Fine Arts Box Office to give audiences online access to the show through a donation. Once donations/purchases are made, the School of Theatre will contact the purchaser by email three hours before the 7:30 p.m. performance time to provide link access.
SFA discovered in presenting its Festival of New American Plays in a free format this past April that audiences wanted a mechanism by which to donate to the School of Theatre in support of performance art.
“This really highlights the value our audiences place on the work of not only the students but also the faculty/staff who are integral to our success,” said Cleo House Jr., director of the School of Theatre. As a result, audience members will have an opportunity to contribute at different levels. The minimum level is $5 with the maximum level being $25.
“Regardless of the level, you’ll get access to the performance on a selected night,” House explained. “We will have three nights of live performance, and, in an effort to be flexible, the remaining nights will be a recorded version of one of the previous live nights. We are so happy that audiences still want to make a financial impact during this time. Our income has been affected by the pandemic, like so many others. Our theatre productions are funded almost 100% by ticket revenue. Donations of any kind are always appreciated.”
Another lesson learned from the play festival was that there is an audience for these types of online performances, House said. “Audiences still want to support the School of Theatre and see our talented students perform live,” he said. “A performance likes this breaks up the monotony of watching the various streaming services that are so popular now. We actually were able to host larger audiences with our play festival than in the past, thanks to not having the limitations of brick and mortar.”
There is a long tradition in the theatre of “the show must go on.” During Shakespeare's life when the London theatres were shut down due to plague, the companies adapted by touring the countryside.
“In this time when many aspects of American life are shut down, we are learning how to keep the show going in the face of whatever the world throws at us,” Billew said. “We are deeply committed to making this a unique piece of online performance.”
The online performance of “The Tempest” speaks not only to the adaptability of theatre but to the commitment that the School of Theatre has to its students and the community, House said. “It speaks to our students’ desire to embrace technology and to their strong commitment to the mantra ‘the show must go on.’”
Live streaming performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 30, July 1 and July 2. Sales end at 1 p.m. for that day’s performance; links will be emailed after 4:30 p.m. The recorded performance will be available July 3 though 5 with daily access purchase required. To purchase online access, visit boxoffice.sfasu.edu or call (936) 468-6407 for online purchasing questions. For more information about the School of Theatre, visit theatre.sfasu.edu.