Unmute, cameras on, action!: Middle school puts on a virtual production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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Photo credit: Greta Irvine

Juliet, played by eighth-grader Sienna Schlesinger, stabs herself with a Minecraft sword during the performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ streamed on Vimeo, Friday, Dec. 11. The choice to use a Minecraft sword as the dagger reflects the decision to not provide props (or costumes) to the cast, “creating a sense of ownership and joy in the process that might not have been there otherwise,” Director Reed Farley said. 

By Greta Irvine, Staff Reporter

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued globally and nationally, the Archer community had to say goodbye to many staple activities and traditions enjoyed each school year. The middle school play was not one of them. After adapting to the online setting, the middle school performed an “Archer-style” version of “Romeo and Juliet’” by William Shakespeare, according to Assistant Director Claire Helscher. The pre-recorded play was shown on Vimeo at 7:00 p.m., Friday, Dec. 11 and Saturday, Dec. 12.

“It is a hybrid of theater and film, taking the two mediums and mashing them together,” Director of Fine and Performing Arts and director of the play, Reed Farley said. 

Without the ability to perform live, each scene was filmed virtually on Zoom and then edited into the video streamed on the performance nights. Families, cast and crew watched the pre-recorded play from the comfort of their homes.

“A real benefit is being able to edit everything,” Helscher said. “Mr. Farley really wanted to play around with backgrounds, costumes, and lighting. So it’s a super interactive experience and something that hasn’t been done before.” 

Casting for the production began online in late August. Due to an extensive number of auditions, the 35 middle school actors were split into “two casts so that everyone was included,” Helscher noted. The Rose cast performance streamed on Friday and the Jade cast performance streamed on Saturday. After assigning roles, rehearsals began during after school hours and continued into November up until tech week on November 30 where both casts met on Zoom to film their scenes. 

“Luckily, we had solidly planned for this virtual scenario. Now that’s not to say things didn’t change,” Farley said. “I like to think of it as we’re all sort of in high school when it comes to these virtual productions. It’s never been done before so there’s definitely a lot of trial and error that happened.” 

During the Zoom sessions, faulty wifi and family interruptions were a challenge for the rehearsing and filming process, along with other setbacks caused by working in an online setting.

I was shocked at their level of engagement and how willing they were to be vulnerable at home. ”

— Reed Farley

“It’s a bit easier to have a one-on-one connection and to bring people out of their shells when you’re in person,” Helscher said. You can pull someone aside or sit and talk through some scenes with them but that’s harder to do on Zoom.” 

Sixth grader Zoë Kahn, who played the nurse in the Rose cast, agreed that connection in the online setting was challenging but said she felt she was able to overcome this obstacle.  

“Rehearsing and performing on Zoom was putting boundaries up. Connection is through a screen and that is very challenging,” Kahn said. “But, really, it just created a different sense of community than in-person would be. This was more about helping each other to get through these times.”

The online setting also posed an issue to the play selection. With a lack of scripts that allowed live streaming and a need to shorten the play to around an hour, Farley decided to choose a Shakespeare script, as there are fewer restrictions on those scripts.

“The pool quickly narrows when you think about a middle school play because we’re obviously not going to do ‘King John’ or even ‘Hamlet’,” Farley said. “So we wanted to do something more playful — and we’d probably never do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in person because it’s challenging for middle schoolers. But at home we’re able to put our comedic stamp on it and make it really playful and funny.”

Interpreting Shakespearean language proved to be a challenge for the middle school cast, but many used outside resources and extensive practice to improve their performances.

“People did research on their own, which was really cool to see. They were taking the initiative, going on ‘No Fear Shakespeare‘  and seeing what their lines translated to and trying to use their acting choices to reflect that,” Helscher said. “So it was really cool to see them take the initiative outside of rehearsal. Also [the cast members] making acting choices that weren’t just what was written on the page and going out of the box was really blowing us away.” 

Kahn was among the cast members who made their own acting choices beyond the script.

It’s not just about putting out a play, it’s about being there for everyone and being there for your new family.”

— Zoë Kahn

 

“My role in this play is a comedic character, and I really got to envision this character and become this person,” Kahn said. “And it was really fun because I got to think of different ways, at home, to be funnier and to be more this character than I would be able to be on campus.”

As Covid-19 restrictions keep students and the school operating online, projects and productions like the middle school play have allowed the Archer community to stay connected.

“Theater brings us together. It creates an experience for all that enjoy it and watch it and participate in it and that’s remained in place,” Farley said. “I hope that the community can come together and have some fun with this innovative work that we’ve been doing and just escape from their daily lives and the monotony of it all for a minute and share some laughs.”