Big Questions in Higher Ed – Albright College

Big Questions in Higher Ed

by Carey Manzolillo

Albright’s Lynn S. Morrow Memorial Theatre Lobby and restrooms received a modernizing facelift over the summer. Photo: Dan Z. Johnson

The Show Must Go On: Theatre in the age of COVID-19 

Around the globe last year, top-billed concerts were canceled, family trips were postponed, theme parks, museums and theatres closed their doors as crowds of all kinds dispersed. But Albright theatre remained a whirlwind of production.

Transforming Physical Spaces

Although Wachovia Theatre’s doors were physically closed, Albright Technical Director and Production Manager, Billy Balmer, was busy transforming its scene shop to comply with post-pandemic safety protocols and to function as a state-of-the-art teaching facility for new curricular initiatives in the areas of design, technology and production management. 

“This allows Albright theatre to offer more instruction in areas such as scenic engineering, scenic art, properties design and construction, model-making and other offerings that we have struggled to manage without a suitable space,” explains Jeff Lentz ’85, senior artist in residence at Albright.

While the large “Green Room” directly underneath the Wachovia Theatre (which years ago served as the scene shop before the creation of the Center for the Arts) will continue to serve as the warm-up area for actors before performances, the primary identity of the space has been re-imagined as an experiential learning center for Albright’s Domino Players. No longer green, the walls and ceiling of the new DP Studio are now dark, giving the space a “black box theatre” feel. New stage lighting and sound capabilities are being incorporated into the space so that student projects have full access to the technology and design support they need to create innovative theatre projects. 

“The DP Studio, along with the scene shop’s new teaching spaces, significantly expands our ability to support the hands-on learning of our young designers and technicians,” says Lentz.

Albright’s lobby and restrooms also received a facelift over the summer, helping to modernize the space and showcase the college’s many national Kennedy Center American College Theatre award-winning productions and artists. 

Visitors will notice a 70-inch digital screen highlighting theatre alumni, past productions and behind-the-scenes videos on current productions. New furniture has been added to transform the space into a more cohesive place for students to gather and work together.

Creating Inspiring Virtual Spaces

While some worked on transforming Albright’s physical spaces, other professionals from Albright College’s nationally-recognized theatre program were creating new ways for people to connect as they stayed home to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

After months of work, Albright Theatre offered a four-part, 30-minute series of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” online. And while the production featured Albright College actors, an impressive number of illustrators from around the world also took part — answering the college’s call to showcase personal interpretations of the play.  

The result was a new take on “Romeo and Juliet,” through the artistic interpretations of an incredibly diverse group of global community perspectives. 

“Our adaptation is the story of Romeo and Juliet as seen through the diverse perspectives of our greater community, with audio performances by our Albright student actors,” explains Dahlia Al-Habieli, M.F.A., assistant professor of theatre, who directed the production. 

“We also had a team of students and professionals working to not only coordinate this almost 70-person team, but to create original music, combine and edit hundreds of actor recordings, edit video, run social media, and engineer impossibly complicated rehearsal schedules. [It] is not quite theatre. It is not quite animation. It has been a labor of both love and discovery.”

Throngs of viewers tuned in as each of the four screenings premiered in April, and roughly 1,000 more have watched the full episodes on YouTube. 

While Al-Habieli’s team worked on “Romeo and Juliet,” Jeff Lentz had also gathered a team to work on a different kind of virtual production, releasing Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in March. 

For “Earnest,” Lentz worked individually with nine different Albright actors on campus and utilized a range of digital arts technology platforms to create a virtual theatre world — complete with a body of animated visuals and audio.

Directing “Earnest” remotely meant that the Oscar Wilde play’s 1950s period costumes needed to be created remotely too, as part of an Albright online fashion/costume construction class (led by theatre and fashion faculty member Paula Trimpey) and then “choreographed” into a still-image collage animation by Lentz and Cocol Bernal.

The comedy of manners and morals in “Earnest” — satirically grating against the idea of a common Victorian play, also featured photography by Albright Professor of History John Pankratz, Ph.D. 

As Lentz points out, the “Romeo” and “Earnest” projects showcase truly extraordinary work, made ever more remarkable by the timing … in the midst of the global pandemic — work that Al-Habieli believes is here to stay and is valuable to her students, if done correctly.

“Even the simplest virtual productions are hybrids of theatre, film, television, streaming and in many cases even videogame/VR design. The technical logistics of creating virtual productions are an immense shift for theatre programs,” says Al-Habieli. “Ironically, I was able to see more theatre with my students during the pandemic than ever before as companies made their digital archives available to stream, or streamed their shows live.”

“While I have seen some astounding, exciting work being made this way, and while the work has been slick, there are times where I have wondered what the learning outcomes were for the students involved,” says Al-Habieli. “I think we did a remarkable job here at Albright, where we managed the shift to virtual work without additional technical support or resources, in creating virtual projects that scaffolded from the learning in which the students had been engaged, pre-COVID-19.”

Illustrators from around the world contributed their personal interpretations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for Albright’s online experience.