Arts & Entertainment

MCHS drama department adapts to online theater

by Sam Leitch, editor

Ask any member of Maria Carrillo High School’s drama department, and they will tell you the value of rehearsals. And although the theater itself could use renovations, it is hard to imagine performing anywhere else–let alone online. However, despite the challenges that come with recalibrating natural cadences to Zoom lag or learning to build without a workshop, Carrillo’s drama and stagecraft students have hit the ground running.

Junior Olivia Keach, who is enrolled in both drama and stagecraft this year, says that on a usual basis, the two are “intertwined.” Coursework would flare up when performances came around. Now that traditional performances cannot be held in the theater, that ebb and flow has dissipated, and the two classes are “completely separate.”

Not to mention, stagecraft has adapted to missing time in the workshop. “It’s very hands on because you have to get working very quickly,” Keach said, explaining that drama and stagecraft teacher Denise Elia-Yen will normally dissuade any students seeking “easy A’s” from taking the course, and five or so students end up dropping it. “She basically goes ‘don’t hurt yourself,’ and then boom, let’s go.”

“We’re about to go further into film acting, voiceover work and podcasts, and we have a wealth of online platforms for sound and set design, and even filmmaking programs,” said Elia-Yen, elaborating on the classes’ plans for the future. “We’re definitely making the most of our situation!”

According to Keach, Elia-Yen takes care to dispel the “easy A” reputation for good reason: the class works with props, clothing, construction, sound, lighting, and makeup, utilizing an array of workshops, storage areas, and theater space. On any given day, Keach said, a student might assemble a chair, Google sound clips to upload for productions, or sew together a costume. 

“Wow, there’s a lot,” Keach laughed, remembering to include painting among the list. “It’s hard to even summarize.”

Keach says that a prevalent change among both courses has been career-oriented education. Currently, stagecraft students are learning the ins and outs of stage management. In drama two, a class for those with experience in the department, students are reviewing both monologues and audition techniques. 

A poster design that Keach displayed at Stage Fright

“I think it is really cool that the students are saying that because, from my perspective, my classes have always been career-oriented,” said Elia-Yen. “That career mindset is just more apparent to students now because they are stepping back and looking at their process from other angles, and starting to feel the strong benefits of that journey.” 

The department plans to broadcast a recording of a virtual holiday-themed children’s show in December. Since Elia-Yen has performed in and is directing a Zoom production with Left Edge Theater Company in Santa Rosa, she knows the “unique challenges” and is ready for her students to try it out. She also would like the class to do a radio show, and reports that the Theater and Film Club has plans to create a podcast.

Ultimately, Elia-Yen’s biggest plan would have to be an alumni showing of Legally Blonde, the spring musical that was cancelled due to COVID. Although reuniting the original cast, crew, and band, swiftly rehearsing the material, and finally reaching opening night after all those years might seem insurmountable, Elia-Yen remains excited. In her own words, this endeavor is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

“My thoughts on the show as a whole, and what I was going through with my health at the time, are hard to put into words,” Elia-Yen said. “I could see its potential from the moment the show was cast. I snuck in to see the end of the last rehearsal on March 13 and help boost the morale of the cast. It was going to be very, very good.” 

Even before the pandemic, the drama department’s rendition of Legally Blonde was defined by the tenacity of everyone involved. The production was in its early stages when Elia-Yen was admitted to the hospital for underlying health concerns, necessitating that her husband step in as a director and students take on new responsibilities. “I didn’t want to say it then, but I can say it now that my health situation escalated suddenly and was much more dire than anyone realized,” Elia-Yen said. “I’m very lucky to still be alive. It was a very personal and sacred time for me.”

Junior Finn Wright, who was a cast member for Legally Blonde and is enrolled in drama two, explained how abrupt it all was. “The cancelation was so sudden, and since people didn’t know how long quarantine would last, I didn’t…register that Legally Blonde was really cancelled and done for,” said Wright. “It was a massive shame, not only because we worked ridiculously long and hard on it, but it was also a lot of new cast members’ first introduction to doing shows.”

While current guidelines prevent students from using the theater, however, that’s not to say that performance has been out of the question: On Oct. 30, the department held Stage Fright over Zoom, which the Theater and Film club billed as a “virtual scare of acts and designs.” According to Elia-Yen, it was a “surprise hit and fantastic way to highlight [the] entire department.”

“Students brought forth their own ideas to perform monologues, songs, and recite from literature,” said Elia-Yen, explaining how students shared original designs for costumes, sets, makeup, posters, and more, with one film student pitching a concept for an animated short film, complete with storyboard. “The reason I chose to do [a virtual showcase] is because I didn’t want to overload our already burdened students with the demands of a full production, but I also didn’t want us to just sit and be static.

Having acted in the previous two fall haunts, however, Wright feared that a virtual showcase just wouldn’t measure up to past expectations. 

“I wasn’t too keen on doing a performance because I thought it would suck, but I was proven wrong,” he remarked. “It was nice to get that rush of show adrenaline. It’s like nothing else. You get to go, ‘I’m done, I’m good,’ and sleep for 20 hours.” 

Wright summarized the acts with excitement, highlighting stage manager Michael Hayden’s set design for a Broadway production of The Night Before Christmas. “It was really well detailed,” Wright said. “He’s a great stage manager.”

Hayden got his start as a stage manager by first being a house manager sophomore year, regulating things like the lobby, box office, and concession. From there, he was an assistant stage manager for productions like The Diary of Anne Frank and Legally Blonde, a position he described as being a “middle-man” between Elia-Yen and the cast.

One of three final set designs that Hayden presented at Stage Fright

“I’m still definitely as involved as I was last year with Legally Blonde and all that,” Hayden said. “It’s just what I’m actually doing is different.” At the moment, Hayden is researching how the class will participate in the annual Lenaea festival, which students normally would attend in person, but is now online. 

Although Hayden is adamant that the class will land on its feet under Elia-Yen’s guidance, he believes the current pandemic might pose disruptions to this cycle of command. “You can’t just watch a video and learn how to work the soundboard,” Hayden said. “You have to talk to five other people and tinker around with it.” After his replacement fills in for him, he guesses they might be down a lighting or sound technician. Like Keach, he described stagecraft as “hands-on,” more than anything.

“Honestly, I don’t think it makes too much of a difference because of how fast we move normally,” Keach said, soon expanding on stagecraft’s work ethic during last year’s show, The Diary of Anne Frank, which she starred in. “There would be five people who would come after class for hours to build the set: they didn’t even have to!”

Makeup and costume design by junior Reilly Trainor for Stage Fright

“This is going to sound sappy, but I miss talking to people in person,” said Wright, who has taken drama since freshman year and believes that acting helped his social awkwardness. “You get close to your classmates and castmates, and that’s almost missing with Zoom. I hope we can get back to that soon because it’s one of the best parts of drama two.” 

Still, he looks to the future with excitement and cherishes the current cast, especially the newcomers from Legally Blonde. “They are incredibly talented, and frankly, I love them,” Wright said. “They’ve got a lot of promise. It’s like that once in a blue moon thing where we have a talented group of people who are also interested in doing shows.”

“The arts are very much helping us all stay sane,” said Elia-Yen. “Think of the shows and films you binge watch, the music you listen to and dance to, the murals you see, the books you read and, therefore, the worlds that creatives have made that you enjoy. Creativity is keeping us Pumas going. We need to celebrate it and continue it, now more than ever.”

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