Lights. Curtains. Dancing and singing. Laughter, clapping and bows. Heart-to-heart moments, backstage memories. Seeing each other in rehearsals and group huddles.
This is what theater-makers and audiences missed this past year with online theater. While shows did go on, as actors and crew members persevered in making the virtual campus lively with their work, it is nice to know that we will be returning to in-person shows and live audiences this school year. Recently, I got to catch up with some theater-makers and talk to them about their experiences with virtual theater and expectations for the coming year.
Like most students, theater companies had to adapt last school year. This adjustment process included navigating Zoom in a way that many couldn’t fathom prior to the pandemic. Chloe Chow ’23 is an actress, producer and director who works with the Ram’s Head Theatrical Society and Asian American Theater Project (AATP).
She said Zoom theater was a challenge, but also something she embraced with a positive mindset as an opportunity to grow: “I experienced Zoom fatigue and burnout faster than I normally would with in-person classes and rehearsals,” she said, “but I think the resilience that I learned will help me push even further once we return back to our self-defined normalcy.”
Her time doing online theater made her view it as a separate artistic medium, not as a halfway point or substitute for in-person shows. This approach allowed her to stay open “to the possibilities that await when you make a performance digitally.” No two shows that she produced, stage managed, directed or performed in were the same.
For rising sophomore Ahmad Koya ’24, the Zoom theater experience brought a drastic change from acting in high school. Used to “having a spotlight on [him], doing makeup, wearing costumes and just feeling the energy of being on stage,” he still wanted to act once everything went online.
“Physically, it was a big change, but personally it did not change my motivation to act, and I found different ways to do it,” Koya said.
During his freshman year, Koya participated in Ram’s Head’s productions of “Gaieties 2020” and “La Llorona.” Writing a skit and performing within the specific time constraints for Gaieties were novel experiences for Koya, pushing him beyond his comfort zone. Reflecting upon these activities, Koya said he felt like a YouTuber — setting up a filming room, green screen and perfect lighting. The disconnect from the audience further enhanced the idea of online entertainment. While these challenges were new, Koya knew that he wanted to make the best of his situation.
Liam Fay ’23 took a similar approach as a set designer for “Gaieties 2020” and composer for “Gaieties 2021.” In between coordinating the virtual behind-the-scenes meetings, he also had to be creative in redefining backstage roles. As a virtual set designer, Fay had to create Zoom backgrounds for shows, which required more artistic skills rather than the traditional design. To him, “it allowed [the theater company] to rethink the way we do things we previously knew and look at the benefit of doing something over Zoom.”
Despite the disadvantages that come with online theater, many found the experience to be beneficial for personal growth. Koya discussed how facial expressions and body language, while important for in-person shows, were crucial to Zoom theater performance.
“I relied a lot on my facial expressions and those very small movements, and I saw how paying attention to these details made me a better actor,” Koya said. “I want to dive into that more when I go back in person.”
Chow’s Zoom experience made her appreciate the accessibility of online theater, as it allowed people from all over the world to watch the magic from the comfort of their homes. In her roles as an actress in the Fall Main Stage production of “Beyond the Wound is a Portal,” producer of Ram’s Head’s first virtual Gaieties and director of AATP’s “Question 27, Question 28,” Chow channeled resilience in the performing arts.
“Coming out of the virtual theater age, I learned that you have to be adaptable, no matter what. Adaptability is the key to survival in this industry, and I’m so thankful that I was able to help pioneer a lot of virtual theater productions at Stanford,” Chow said.
Now, she wants to explore the intersection of performance and technology, drawing inspiration from a performance of “The Seagull” on “Sims 4.” To talk more about gaming culture, she hopes to direct a play that partly takes place in a video game. She plans to experiment with projection and virtual reality as a set to “deepen [her] understanding of the role that digitization of worlds and presentation has on the future of theater.”
With the return to in-person theater comes the traditional recruitment festivities. Fay was recruited into “Gaieties 2018” in the standard way: Ram’s Head members “yelled at [him] in White Plaza until [he] auditioned.”
“Somehow, I made it in and fell in love with Stanford theater from there,” Fay said.
Through his experience in backstage and center-stage roles, Fay came to learn that theater experience is not required to get involved in productions at Stanford. With most shows, especially on Zoom, skills that may not seem applicable to theater are sometimes crucial, and new people are needed all the time.
Chow, for example, auditioned for “Gaieties 2019” on a whim. Then, the show connected her to a strong community of theater-makers. She encourages the newcomers to reach out to people for advice and to throw themselves at opportunities they are interested in, no matter their level of experience.
“Stanford’s theater community is there to welcome people of all identities and backgrounds, and we are always looking for people to fill positions and provide mentorship to those who desire to learn and grow,” Chow said. “Each show is only a quarterly commitment, but these friendships and relationships you build will last your entire career.”
While she found it difficult to maintain relationships with the wider theater community on Zoom, Chow managed to find artists that would support her both virtually and eventually in person.
For all interviewees yearning to return to campus stages the new year brings hope for restoring the collaborative, social aspects of theater — working together in person and not in front of a screen.
“I always appreciated in-person shows, but I still took it for granted,” Fay said. “Now, I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted again.”