After piling up a mountain of records and boxes and anything else she could find around her house, Master of Fine Arts acting candidate Darah Donaher carefully set her phone on her makeshift tripod, composed herself in front of the blank wall and began her self-taped audition.
This is not an unusual process for theatre students. For Donaher, it was simply an audition for “MEDUSA,” which is a musical sponsored by IMAGEN, a program within the Department of Theatre and the Institute for Arts & Creativity at Wharton Center that creates workshops for new musicals to be developed with the writers present.
But what came next was entirely unexpected.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit and was in full swing while the students were unsure if they’d ever get to finish the musical. Brad Willcuts, assistant professor of musical theatre and choreography and head of the project, said they began the process in February and from March to June, the team had to wait on the university’s decisions for in-person allowance.
Finally, in August, after money had already been spent, they decided to try something new: make the musical virtual.
“It was really special,” Willcuts said. “It was the first time since we started school with COVID that we were able to put something together that people could buy tickets for, people felt like it was an opening night. So that was really special to have that even in the smallest of forms.”
After rehearsals in September and editing in October, the musical premiered on Nov. 7 and 8 and people could buy tickets online to watch it. Although they had a significantly smaller audience of at least over 100 people, Willcuts said the project served its purpose.
“I would say the overall hope was just to prove that we could still make something special, and still give students an experiential education during COVID, and still make connections with other artists, and still use our voices to create theatre and effect change,” Willcuts said.
Rehearsals had a different environment online. Willcuts said the team talked a lot about how they missed being in one room together. With the delays on Zoom, they couldn’t sing as a choir at the same time, so the students had to mute their microphones. The choreography was also difficult to coordinate.
“But you learn to pivot when you’re in a restriction,” Willcuts said. “Oftentimes, restrictions in the arts can actually be quite revealing and can set you free.”
The creative atmosphere was refreshing for cast members and the writers alike.
“It was hard, but it also brought a lot of positive memories back to people who had been sitting, waiting,” Willcuts said. “Especially those who were living in New York waiting for something else to happen, it made them feel that they could find that camaraderie and connectivity again.”
Co-writers Wes Braver and Rachel Dean have workshopped their musical “MEDUSA” with many people including Broadway actors and New York University students. This was the first time, however, they saw it performed in this virtual setting.
“At first, I was dreading it,” Braver said. “I just thought ‘this is gonna suck, this is not theater, this is not how this is supposed to be done,’ this musical is not written for Zoom.”
Donaher, a cast member who played Athena, felt the same way. She was concerned about the dynamic of the show and worried about making friends with other cast members.
“I was nervous that this was going to be a platform in which that safe space and that camaraderie was going to be lost,” Donaher said. “But I think one of the best things to come out of ‘MEDUSA’ was that we realized that no matter what, as long as we’re sharing this art form on some platform, that that’s still gonna be there.”
After seeing how the rehearsals played out, Braver was pleasantly surprised as well.
“I feel like I got to know some of the students and certainly our creative team continued to strengthen our internal bonds by doing this,” Braver said. “It was really nice to just be able to include people in this process that we otherwise would not have been able to due to the pandemic.”
Braver and Dean wrote this musical in 2016, shortly before President Donald Trump was elected. At the time, there was a national conversation around sexual assault and race inclusion. Braver and Dean wanted to bring those to attention by looking at musical theatre canon.
The story they wrote follows Medusa, played by a Black woman, who was assaulted by Poseidon. Rumors characterized her as a woman who had snakes in her hair, therefore creating the legend.
To give the MSU team members context and historical background, the program hired professional dramaturgs to help.
“This time, it was a lot more of us watching the performers and just discussing,” Braver said. “There was a lot of really good dramaturgical discussion about the show and that was very productive.”
Donaher enjoyed that aspect of rehearsals as well.
“We had these full group sessions with them and they created such a safe space for us to be able to talk about these really difficult topics like sexual assault and race,” Donaher said. “It was an awesome, such supportive group where it really felt like anything goes and anything could be said because there was a care and real true respect for everyone else in the room.”
After rehearsals and group Zoom calls, the cast members had to record themselves lip-syncing and dancing in costume over one single audio of all of their voices synced together to put together the final product.
Film studies and media and information senior Nala Davis was a part of the editing team that worked in October to combine the audio and clips while making it interactive and engaging.
This process was normal for her, except she worked at home rather than on campus.
“I actually edit here in my office,” Davis said. “I work here a lot, I do a lot of paintings, I paint also so I feel like I’m surrounded by my art and it gives me a peace of mind and the editing process is really nice.”
Davis’ job was to edit the ensemble of “Snakes in Her Hair,” a song from the musical. She was given about 20 videos to compile based on what the team wanted.
Overall, it took her about 30 hours to edit that section. The team had three deadlines: two weeks after they received the footage, then around Oct. 30, then a few days after that.
Seeing it all come together was just as exciting for Davis.
“I think that’s the best part about editing,” Davis said. “I feel like you’re handed an outline, or Play-Doh I would say, and then you’re kind of molding into the shape that it comes out to, then you have this fully finished piece of work after that so many people contributed to. But I feel like I’m kind of that final shaper of the product, so I think that’s the beauty of editing.”
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