‘Zoom Gaieties’: An opportunity for creative and institutional change

How the theatrical production plans to move forward virtually while still incorporating community building, inclusiveness and the essence of a traditional Gaieties

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After Stanford’s announcement that in-person gatherings will be prohibited on campus, many student groups revised their plans for the upcoming school year once again. Gaieties, an annual musical held by The Ram’s Head Theatrical Society that celebrates Stanford’s quirks while calling out the University on its pitfalls, is no exception.

Gaieties already went through a major structural change earlier this summer, and after evaluating different ways to respond to Stanford’s prohibition of public gatherings, Producer Chloe Chow ’23 and Stage Manager Liam Smith ’23 decided to change Gaieties’ format again. In an email sent to Ram’s Head on July 29, the production team announced that Gaieties would move to an entirely virtual platform, abandoning its traditional format of a full-scale, in-person musical. Instead, as stated in the email, “the show will be accompanied by devised skits created by company members.” In addition, the email included that “this year’s Gaieties will center the struggles, frustrations, and moments of joy of being a Stanford student through a mix of old & new songs, updated to reflect the current Stanford experience” instead of a completely original soundtrack.

During this unprecedented time, what it looks like to perform “on stage” has been completely reinvented. Below, read more about how, for the first time in history, the production team plans to shift the musical online while still keeping the essence of Gaieties alive.

How was this decision made?

Worsening public health conditions and updates from Stanford were significant in the decision to go virtual. The idea to move Gaieties online was formed by Chow and Smith, who brought it up to Kaitlyn Khayat ’21, Ram’s Head’s Executive Producer, for review.

“We realized that it would be a really big disappointment to plan for an in-person event [knowing] it was likely that it wouldn’t happen. [Since] we don’t have as much familiarity with online events, it’s better to plan for the more complex and technologically involved thing rather than [try] to come up with that on the fly,” Khayat explained. “[Since] we’ve decided to go with this option before we even start hiring and casting for a lot of our positions, hopefully it doesn’t feel like a disappointment, and instead feels like a really cool, unique opportunity.”

Director Justine Sombilon ’22 also offered her input on the decision: “If the alternative is no Gaieties, I think online Gaieties is the best thing to do right now.”

Khayat noted that “it made a lot more sense and felt more equitable to move [Gaieties] online to a platform that is hopefully more accessible to everyone. By and large, the ability to include all four classes instead of just the two that would be on campus [during fall quarter under the University’s original plan] was another big decision-making factor.”

Who’s invited to join?

With the shift to a virtual platform comes the ability for a greater number of students to join and attend the musical. Gaieties 2020 will be open to all Stanford students, regardless of grade level or musical ability.

Sombilon noted that with an online platform, many Stanford students will have equal access to the same opportunities, and there will be less of an information gap between different communities on campus. Sombilon also said, “A problem in the past [was] that outreach for Gaieties can tend to be to one or very specific groups of people, such as the theater community on campus,” and that often, students without previous theater experience didn’t know how to join Stanford’s theater scene.

Chow added, “It’s no secret that Gaieties is a positive feedback loop. In the most respectful way possible, white and privileged individuals are drawn to Gaieties because it is [similar to the] theater community they experienced in high school, while others may not be as willing to take a risk because they’re daunted by the fact that it’s highly populated by white individuals.”

Chow stated that the same people who participate in Gaieties tend to return to more Ram’s Head productions, as “these [individuals] end up staying in Ram’s Head and leading Ram’s Head, shaping future Gaieties and only soliciting to the people who are like them.” Chow said this year’s team will be doing their best to make this Gaieties as accessible as possible by, for instance, “getting proper internet access to people and if possible, distributing cameras, microphones and green screens so that everybody will have, to some extent, an equal Zoom platform to perform on.”

What will the whole show look like? 

The production team has decided to do a sketch-style Gaieties. The show will be performed and filmed mainly on Zoom, edited and then broadcast through ShowTix4U livestream on Nov. 13 – 15 as a pre-recorded production. Ideally, “it’ll be cabaret-style, where you have like a few songs and a skit, then a song, then maybe two skits — but for sure, it’s going to be bookended by original ensemble pieces,” said Chow. Skits will also include songs from past Gaieties, and Chow hopes original songs will also be composed and performed.

Chow also mentioned the significance of incorporating songs from previous Gaieties, stating that “our twist [is] that we are going to be rewriting a lot of the lyrics. I want to return back to my original vision of diversity and inclusiveness and how Gaieties should embody that moving forward, while also acknowledging the damage that was done in the past.” She is aiming to have “as many different communities — underrepresented communities — performing in this Gaieties, singing these songs, performing these skits, telling their stories, since it’s now in their hands without a preconditioned script.”

What’s going to look the same?

The musical style of Gaieties 2020 will stay somewhat consistent with a traditional Gaieties. Additionally, Khayat believes that what makes Gaieties unique will still stay the same, such as “the kooky, fun, ridiculous energy of people making fools of themselves, as well as the critique of things that aren’t so great about Stanford but are important to acknowledge and call out in a constructive and fun way.” 

Paulo Makalinao ’23, videographer, believes that “the meanings, messages, campus unity and community that we try to promote through Gaieties will hopefully still be there. The overall message of promoting a more inclusive community within Stanford will also still be there. While it’ll be quite different from a typical Gaieties, the heart and the soul of what Gaieties stands for and why we do it is always going to remain.”

Both Chow and Khayat hope to create a bonding experience as close to a traditional Gaieties as possible. “By and large, the community-building aspect is something that people really value in Gaieties,” said Khayat. “I hear it over and over, and I see people make friends in Gaieties that stay friends throughout Stanford. And we are striving to provide that experience for people this year.”

What’s going to change? 

Gaieties 2020 will no longer be in a traditional narrative style. The cast will be responsible for writing the script for their own skits, with the artistic vision led by Sombilon. “Hopefully with this entire production, we’ll come up with a theme that we want [the cast] to follow,” said Chow. 

Since there will be no pit orchestra this year, the music will be simplified and mainly in a piano-ballad style, according to Composer Katie Pieschela ’23. Music director Sophie Opferman ’23 said, “[There] will probably be shorter songs … [that are] simpler in terms of orchestration and harmony, just so it’s suitable and performable in an online format.”

Khayat believes that the virtual format opens an opportunity for increased participation, especially from upperclassmen. “[Gaieties 2020] will have a really different feel for the people involved, and that will be really exciting,” said Khayat. “Hopefully, we’ll get a lot more upperclassmen turnout because it won’t feel like people are performing the same show over and over again.” Additionally, Khayat noted how “Gaieties says something that’s really specific to Stanford, and a lot of alumni hold it really dear in their hearts. I’m excited about the opportunity to reach out and see if we can engage other Stanford alumni or families at home who might not otherwise get to see their students perform.”

What will the music sound like, and the composition process look like?

Katie Pieschala was initially in charge of composing original pieces for Gaieties. She has become more of a music facilitator with this virtual format, however — she will be meeting and working with different performers to help them create one or two new songs and lyrics for each skit. In addition, Pieschala will now work closely with the recording and video engineers to ensure their plans for sound quality are viable. She added that since it’s difficult to coordinate singing with other people and instruments virtually, most of the songs will be written and sung solely with piano accompaniment. “The devised skits are just going to be smaller-scale scenes of a traditional Gaieties, so I figure the music and lyrics will be pretty Gaieties-like, just on a smaller scale,” said Pieschala.

As music director, Sophie Opferman ’23 originally signed on to hire pit-orchestra musicians, lead rehearsals and ultimately conduct the show. With the online format, she is now responsible for selecting songs from previous Gaieties to revise. Opferman will work closely with Pieschala to make sure the old and new songs work together well. She will also help recording engineers create the backing tracks for singers to use in performances. For Opferman, the biggest difficulty, she said, is not having “as much freedom to create those truly magical moments that Gaieties is about” — they no longer have a pit orchestra or as many full-length songs as before.

As to what revamping old songs from Gaieties might look like, Opferman recalled how “one of the things that Gaieties 2019 did so beautifully was centering a same-sex storyline and having that be the focal point, but not really treating it any differently. It’d be very interesting to take a love song from a past ballad or a past Gaieties that was between a guy and a girl and change it so that it’s between two guys or two girls, so that it’s more inclusive and more representative of what Gaieties should be.”

Opherman noted advantages that come with doing a virtual show: “There are lots of opportunities for doing things — like adding tracks or sampling different songs and putting them in — that you couldn’t necessarily do in a live performance. [I also love] that we’re going to have so many attempts because we’re filming instead of doing it live, [allowing us] to really experiment.”

What will the set design look like?

While Gaieties 2020 no longer has a physical stage, the production team is hoping to create a similar visual experience by creating graphics to use on Zoom. Liam Fay ’22, set designer, must figure out how each scene will look visually through a virtual format. “I’m getting to reinvent what set design means to the show,” said Fay. “In this case, it’ll be up to me working with our videographer Paulo to figure out, ‘What does the green screen background that we have behind him look like? And how are the panels of people going to be arranged on screen?’ — which is obviously not what I signed up for, but is a cool, creative challenge.”

In terms of what the set might look like, Fay said, “What will be in common [with a traditional Gaieties] is the general whimsy and slightly cartoonish look that Gaieties normally has. It doesn’t look Seussical — [Gaieties] sets are usually fairly realistically painted, but the contrast is turned up a bit because it adds to the excitement and the fun.”

For Fay, working with the videographer will be important for the set design process: “The way that tiles or different camera shots are lined up has to do with the way that the set design then ends up looking.” Although collaborating with Makalinao and other members of the production team will be more difficult than usual, Fay believes the process will be easier — he has worked with almost everyone on the production team and trusts their creative vision.

How will virtual filming work?

The majority of each skit will be recorded through Zoom — each performer will be in their individual rectangle on the screen. The production team predicts that the cast will individually record their parts and send them to Makalinao to stitch together.

Makalinao, who initially joined the team as the videographer, has shifted more into the role of a video editor, as he is responsible for putting all the videos, edited audio and graphics together for the final product. Makalinao described himself as “a very camera and gear oriented person” rather than someone who enjoys editing. Instead of thinking about how he wants to shoot something and what equipment to use, he is now “putting that all aside and directing people to get the content that we’re looking for in a virtual sense.”

“When I have camera equipment and gear, I’m thinking, ‘How do I want to compose the shot … to convey the storyline the best?’” Makalinao said. “And now [I think,] ‘How do I take all these different shots of all these people … on their iPhone and put this on a canvas? How do I arrange these people to get the best version of storytelling that we want to convey? How do I go from this scene number to the skit … to a more musical number? How can I use my video editing … to keep the heart and soul of Gaieties still wrapped up in what we’re producing?’ And I think that’s the challenge that I’m looking for.”

In addition, instead of having an autonomous role where the bulk of the work comes at the end of the production for the videographer, he now must work constantly with the sound engineers, set designer, creative team and others: “My role has changed greatly — from somebody who can be on the sidelines and pop in every other week to somebody who is now going to constantly be there to help form that final vision.”

Makalinao emphasized, however, that he views his role as a messenger rather than the sole creator: “I want to give [the creative team] as many creative tools as I can possibly give them … I just want to make people’s visions and dreams that they have about [Gaieties 2020] come to life.”

What will the audition process look like?

Auditions will be held during the first week of fall quarter. Chow hopes the production team can hold them live over Zoom, as the team would prefer meeting with auditionees face-to-face rather than watching audition videos. 

“The traditional Gaieties audition is unlike any other theatrical audition you will ever do,” Khayat explained. “Everyone is wearing crazy clothes and costumes. You come in, and everyone cheers for you and hypes you up through it. You’re supposed to tell a joke, and then you read a side that’s absolutely nonsense. We ask people to deliver it in different ways, and it’s really funny, kooky and hilarious for the people watching — and also the people auditioning … Chloe and I have been talking about how to use Zoom to [recreate that and] make it feel as though we are providing the same excitement and support for auditionees.”

How will the cast rehearse?

Kelsey Carido ’22 will be the vocal director, working with the cast to rehearse their songs. “Rehearsals are going to be low-maintenance, probably twice a week,” said Chow. However, cast members can reserve additional times, if needed.

How can I watch?

On Nov. 1, the Gaieties team is planning to livestream the final video on YouTube. Chow said the performance will be uploaded to YouTube afterward for anybody to watch in the future — although she “hopes people will still treat the November 1 date as like an actual Gaieties performance.” 

Final thoughts from the production team

Paulo Makalinao (video editor): “Now that we’ve transitioned to a virtual Gaieties, there’s really no playbook for anybody. This is the first time that we’re all going to go through this, and I’m happy we get to go through this together … I anticipate it’ll be a very interesting product. But at the end of the day, I don’t think this is going to be any different … Having this in an online format accentuates the idea that Gaieties has always been wacky, fun and different.”

Chloe Chow (producer): “We really want to use this Gaieties to right the wrongs that Gaieties sent in the past … I’m hoping that, because [we’re aspiring] to hire more people of color both in the cast and the production [team], we can start to turn things around and make it more of a representative production rather than an exclusionary one.”

Justine Sombilon (director): “The exciting thing for me about this Gaieties is that we’re not trying to write a new story — we’re trying to bring to light the experiences of every Stanford student: people from every single community and group on campus. And so we really encourage people from every single corner and crevice of Stanford to just audition. We would love to have you. We don’t care if you can sing or act or dance — we just want you to have fun. The biggest goal of Gaieties is not to put on a Broadway show — it’s to have fun. And we want to provide, we want to be a vehicle for that, especially this fall quarter, because we know it’s gonna be difficult, but we want to be some kind of light in someone’s life. I also feel that Gaieties is the most undaunting form of theater on campus, because it’s silly, it’s fun and it can be meaningful. I think there’s a possibility for it to be especially meaningful as a community-builder right now.”

A common theme throughout each interviewee’s response was the emphasis on how every one of them found a home and support system in the process of creating Gaieties. Many members of the production team also expect community-building to be difficult this year. Even so, Sombilon emphasized that she wants to provide a support system for everyone in the company, as quarantine can feel very isolating. “I want this to be a positive experience,” said Sombilon. “Even though it’s over Zoom, I want [Gaieties] to feel as personal and as face-to-face as possible, even if we’re thousands and thousands of miles away.”

Contact Vivian Jiang at jiang.vivian2 ‘at’ gmail.com.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Gaieties will be broadcast on ShowTix4U, not YouTube. The Daily regrets this error. Additionally, this article has been updated to reflect changes to the rehearsal process.

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Vivian Jiang is a high school student writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.