Instead of feeling at home onstage, freshmen theater students must bring the stage to their own homes through their computer screens. The MSU Department of Theatre’s freshman showcase takes a new form this year as a mockumentary web series called “PANDEMIC’D.”
Academic Specialist in acting and improv Sarah Hendrickson and Assistant Professor of media acting Ryan Welsh came together with their different areas of expertise to direct this production.
Hendrickson and Welsh originally aimed for 15 minutes of quality footage to edit and put together into a mini documentary.
However, they were surprised with the students’ enthusiasm and ended up with a lot more content than expected. That’s when they decided to turn it into a web series with separate episodes.
“We want to bring some lightness and a little bit of levity to what is happening,” Hendrickson said. “There’s no disrespect here to the pandemic or anything that’s happening, it’s just like, how can we as a community embrace what’s going on, acknowledge what’s going on, but then also look to the future for hope and have some fun along the way.”
The show follows 16 freshmen as a remote, improvised mockumentary. They act as students in a fictional acting school who encounter comedic, relatable situations.
Part of their roles involve attending Zoom rehearsals and tapings twice a week from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. as well as filming their own b-roll to accompany their characters’ storylines.
“That comes with some benefits because sometimes they shoot something in a way that I wasn’t imagining but it’s totally true to the story that they’re telling and it ends up being really fun,” Welsh said.
Giving students this flexibility in creativity is important for them to feel a sense of ownership over the project too.
“Ryan and I are still very much directing and guiding them and giving them suggestions for what to do, but they’re doing their b-roll on their own,” Hendrickson said. “They’re using their phones, and they’re using whatever means that they have, so they’re being really adaptable to what is happening right now in the world to still continue to do their art.”
Communications and theater freshman Jewell Redman said even with this added responsibility, her schedule is still flexible.
“Sarah and Ryan are really good about giving us our b-roll,” Redman said. “They’re never really strict. They want us to get it done when we can because everyone has different circumstances. Personally, I work and I have credits to do, and I’m sure other people do too.”
The freshmen also had to develop their own characters for the improv. Most of their characters are based on expanded traits from their real personalities.
Bachelor's in fine arts (BFA) actor and game design freshman Ben Barber explained the process of choosing character traits.
“We wrote down a list of things we were excited about,” Barber said. “Then we took one of those ideas. I wrote down ‘I’m excited to go make a snowman; I’ve never seen that much snow’ or ‘I’m excited to find a girlfriend.’ Then we took one of those aspects and we’re going to play that up to the max.”
Barber chose to play a romantic.
“He really wants to find the one true love in college, so that’s kind of what’s been going on,” Barber said. “I’ve been looking for that and who knows? Maybe I found it.”
Hendrickson and Welsh hoped the students would develop their characters throughout the series. Redman said her and her classmates’ characters experience growth over time.
“Basically, we’re all sort of more eccentric versions of our characters," Redman said. "We’re a bit more dramatic. My character, she isn’t too upset about staying home for this first year to just take a little bit of the stress off.”
BFA stage management freshman Cora Large is also involved in the series. Because she can’t work behind the scenes in this production, her stage management role is channeled into her acting.
“My role is kind of like acting like a hermit,” Large said. “I don't see anybody or do anything here. I have plants. I'm like a grandma. That's kind of my character, and it's really fun. It's just like an extension of me.”
Creating chemistry between their characters can be challenging, but the freshmen said they have built connections virtually.
“It’s really funny all the time interacting with them because we’re all so comfortable with each other, even though we have that aspect of over the screen,” Redman said. “It’s so crazy to see how connected we are with (the directors) and how we’re always ready to share ideas or give feedback or advice.”
At the beginning of the show, the students didn’t know each other. But in an attempt to form friendships, they said they've made group chats and scheduled video calls to bond outside of rehearsal.
“We’ve had a presentation night where everyone makes presentations and shows up or plays Among Us for a few hours and just on our own time have created space to meet everybody,” Large said.
Barber said these moments were also memorable for him.
“We’ve just had those little connections over time and then as time went on, we went through our classes together,” Barber said. “We would have Zoom meetings like at midnight on Fridays and we’d just talk until 2 a.m., just to get to know each other a little bit more.”
Building these friendships through the screen have influenced the culture of the production as well.
“I think it makes it a lot better because we have become so much more comfortable with each other and able to voice our opinions and our ideas and just go with it,” Large said. “So, I think the comfort just kind of creates a better dynamic within the group.”
Redman said being a part of this group changed her outlook on college as a whole. Before she joined the cast, she was unsure how to find a community like this.
“Now that I’m here, I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” Redman said. “I was really scared to come to college and find a place that I fit because I’ve kind of struggled with fitting in places sometimes. But finding these people and this experience has changed me for the better.”