After receiving the go-ahead for in-person theater, the PAD is full steam ahead
In-person classes are back at Washington University, and so too is indoor theater back at the Performing Arts Department. That decision has been a long time coming. After the last year of Zoom theater, recorded performances and outdoor theater in April, the department has finally been cleared to resume mostly normal operations.
“We only found out the other day that we can do this,” William Whitaker, professor of Drama in the PAD and chair of the production committee, said. “So there was a great sigh of relief and excitement.”
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is not over. Theater isn’t back to what it was in previous years — while actors can remain maskless when more than 6 feet from each other onstage, everyone in the audience and backstage must be masked, as must actors when they cross that 6-foot boundary.
This isn’t the PAD’s first rodeo with masking rules. Last year’s two outdoor shows, “COVID Mysteries” and “Tough!,” played with masks as well.
“I got to experiment with this a little bit with ‘Tough!’ in the spring,” Whitaker said. “When [the actors] got closer their masks were up, and I thought the audience was accepting of that.”
In “Tough!,” actors dramatically pulled their masks up when they stepped forward to confront other characters, something that Whitaker foresees continuing, especially in the season’s first play, “She Kills Monsters.”
“She Kills Monsters” is a fun, playful piece of theater with both elaborate sword fights and moments of closeness. The show, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, would allow for masking during fights, but also for other forms of distanced closeness, Whitaker said.
“I think we can get away with some sort of staging that is affectionate, but removed. I’m calling it socially distanced intimacy.”
Of course, there is the ever-present worry that classes may return to an online format, thus rendering in-person theater impracticable. “She Kills Monsters” can adapt to that, too — the play was rewritten for an online format during quarantine last summer, and though this isn’t ideal, Whitaker says the PAD can adjust and perform it as an online piece.
Right now, though, he said that “everybody is trying to focus on reclaiming the world of real theater.” By real theater, Whitaker meant “to really bring things that you have planned in sketch and on your computer and actually see them made manifest in a theater.”
That’s not to say improv and outdoor theater aren’t real theater, he added, but that after so long making Zoom plays and outdoor plays, theater practitioners are eager to perform indoors again.
“The work of the theater is communal,” Whitaker explained. “It’s an ensemble. It’s people in a room together making a thing, a beautiful thing, a funny thing, a terrible thing, whatever.”
That quality, of people in a room, is what he hopes people who haven’t gotten to experience WashU theater recently will take away from the experience of this season. The goal, he said, is to share “the exquisite delight of sharing an event with other human beings and that collective spirit of the live actor in front of you, and the audience and that sort of electricity, and real people in a real room doing real things.”
It’s the emphasis on realness that defines live theater. We live in an age of TV and movies, but sitting in a room with a crowd, watching a show in real time, is, after a long hiatus, finally back.