Premiering Now: Cox and Box!

Hello! My name is Ruth Jaensubhakij, and I’m part of the new HRG&SP board class, as well as the stage manager for Cox & Box — our virtual show that opens tomorrow! It’s been a huge honour to be a part of this project, and I can’t wait for the world to see what we’ve put together. For today’s blog post, I’ll be giving you a little bit of insight into what the process for creating this show looked like, and hopefully this will get you excited to come and see it!

In my opinion, the most unique part of this production is that we’re incorporating both live and pre-recorded elements. Since Cox & Box is a musical, the directors, producers, and incredible staff of audio and video editors have put together 10 ‘music videos’, which will play in between acted scenes that take place live on Zoom. We’ve included sound effects, a life-like virtual set, and full props + costumes to make the experience as immersive as possible — all while our cast performs from their homes and dorm rooms! We’ll then put all of these elements together in OBS Studio, which we’ll use to stream on YouTube. It’s a complicated setup with many moving parts, but with the help of many people, including sound/hair/makeup/costume/prop/set designers, audio/video editors, and of course our cast, it’s all come together beautifully.

The rehearsal process for Cox & Box was also very unique. Unlike most live shows, where the music and acting rehearsals would follow roughly the same timeline (to culminate in a tech week right before the show), for Cox & Box the music part actually took place much earlier in the process. The cast kicked off rehearsals by learning — and immediately recording — all of the songs in the show. Our fantastic music director, Veronica Leahy, was running Zoom rehearsals and coaching the cast through the recording process; at the same time, our fabulous stage director Sam Dvorak was teaching the cast staging for the videos. By March, drafts of all the audio mixes had been put together, and the cast began the arduous video recording process. This often involved shooting several takes of dozens of different shots within a single song, and many of our cast members recruited roommates, family members (including pets), and significant others to help! Producers and designers worked extremely hard to ensure that green screens, costumes, props, and makeup were all ready by this stage — far earlier than for a typical show. Then, our team of editors put together drafts of audio mixes and videos, using background images of the virtual set (rendered entirely in Blender) to make it look as though actors were actually in the space.

While all this editing was happening, the cast began to buckle down on rehearsing dialogue and staging for the live scenes. With the help of Zoom’s virtual background feature, we were able to make it look as if characters were all in the same room, and thanks to stage director Sam Dvorak’s creativity and the magic of duplicate props, we spent many hours practicing passing props back and forth between laptop screens. When it came time for tech week, the sound team brought in a host of sound effects ranging from doors slamming to bacon sizzling, and the producers worked tirelessly to ensure that all videos and live scenes would be captioned. 

As for me, as stage manager my job during the show itself is to run OBS Studio — capturing Zoom videos and putting them into different configurations, transitioning between scenes, playing videos, running captions, etc. — and stream it all to YouTube. I’ve personally learnt a lot from the process, and though we’ve had many hiccups and technical difficulties along the way, I’m constantly amazed by what our team has put together! Everyone, from cast to designers to producers to staff to directors, has put in so much creativity and effort to make this show great. 

But what does all of it actually look like? You’ll have to come and watch the show to find out! Check out the HRG&SP President’s channel on YouTube under ‘upcoming streams’, and join us at 8pm Eastern on the 30th of April or the 1st, 7th, and 8th of May. We can’t wait to see you there!

—RHMJ

A First Year’s Experience with Virtual Theater

I’m a first year, and I came to Harvard to make theater. More specifically, theater was the only thing I cared about, and I planned to spend more hours in a black box than my own dorm room. I looked forward to highlighting and dog-earing a new script, to standing on spike marks and looking up at the lights, to tripping over my own feet in the darkness of preshow. To weird vocal warmups. To dancing backstage with my friends while the lead belted out a solo. To creating a moment that would never last. As it turned out, I didn’t get to do any of those things. 

I’ve seen the outside of the Loeb (it was big and shiny). I saw the inside of Farkas Hall (on my friend’s Instagram story). Google Images has given me a better tour of this campus than anyone I know. A few nights ago, I was in Harvard Square, walking home to my off-campus apartment, when I came upon the red backlit sign of Farkas. It was around 10pm. I stood on the steps. The glass doors were locked (I did try the handle; couldn’t help it.) The lobby was softly lit, and the sunburst over the entrance and the words THEATER, DANCE, AND MEDIA glowed. 

I tried the handle because I wanted to pretend I could go in. I wanted to pretend that, despite the pandemic, despite stages going dark, I could still call a theater home. I hope Farkas, and the Loeb, and the Ex, and all those fun buildings I’ve only heard about, will become home, someday. Not today. 

But for now, home is my friends. People I’ve laughed with during late-night zooms (like Schwenck!), my Froshsical creative team (we wrote a musical about funnel cakes and friendship!), and upperclassmen who’ve been kind enough to reach out and give me and my fellow first-years advice about creating art, all the while dealing with zoom school, thesis-ing, and impending graduation. I’ve watched friends direct virtual shows about Shakespeare plays, act in cow costumes, perform original songs about names, and so much more. Every time I see the chat light up with excited messages from the audience, I feel a bit better about this whole virtual theater thing. We’ve found ways of connecting with each other and creating art, even when it seemed impossible. Some things are still impossible, like standing behind a curtain waiting for the veil to lift, or hearing the first note from the orchestra shiver into an expectant theater. But this year was special, in its own ways. This year, I learned what home is: the spaces I create, and the art that I make, with the people I love.

—SK

Gilbert and Sullivan.mp4

Video was never a medium I considered for 19th century operetta. Not just because it’s really old, but because video was always something that was either for TV and movie studios with high budgets or for casual posts on social media, not for theater, which was in between. Sure, there would always be a recording of our stage performance, but it was only a way to remind ourselves of the real thing, the 3-dimensional set, the textures of the costumes and the laughter of the audience.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were scattered across the globe and we had to merge these two worlds, the world of video and the world of theater, together. For our virtual fall production of Ruddigore, we fashioned together costumes from our own outfits, recorded the music to meticulously constructed click tracks, took out our cell phone cameras, and recorded our performances. Once the acting and singing was over, the fate of the performance was in the hands of the audio and video editors.

Under the supervision of our amazing Technical Producer, Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, the audio and video editors spent hours arranging the recordings into a finished product, lining up the recordings so people would appear to be singing at the same time, making audio sound nicer and videos look better, and adding special artwork and effects. As a video editor, I got to see the production come together in a special way. Though the actors and instrumentalists were in different locations around the world, I got to see them singing and acting together for the first time.

Even though I still miss in-person theater, it is really special to get to use video to tell these stories. While editing, I get to choose how someone enters the screen, how bright their room appears and how much of them the audience sees, even after they’ve finished their performance. What we lose in spontaneity, we gain in control. Our video isn’t confined to a constructed environment on a stage and our backgrounds aren’t limited to what we can build and paint to scale. I’m excited for how we will continue to use this medium’s features to create new versions of these old shows, (like this spring’s production of Cox and Box!) until we finally get to go back to a physical theater.

—NAJ

Looking Forward, Glancing Behind

This week, Harvard undergraduates got an email from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean that confirmed that we would be returning to campus in the fall. While we don’t exactly know what this means for theater yet, I remain hopeful that we’ll be putting on shows in the same physical space once again. There are a lot of reasons I’ve sorely missed in-person theater this year. Boxes of greenscreen setups, lights, and costumes are piled in my room; the perpetual fear of spotty internet connection clouds every performance; and the prospect of staring at yet another Zoom screen has often made me dread going to rehearsal. But what I definitely miss the most are the unscheduled moments, where we just get to be together, share snacks, exchange hugs, and perhaps burst randomly into song. These opportunities for connection are not only a great boost for my currently lacking social life, but an integral part of the art-making process. And that brings me to the story of how our spring 2021 show, Cox and Box, came to be.

Sir Arthur Sullivan and F. C. Burnand met at a party of musicians and artists hosted by a mutual friend. At the time, Burnand was already quite an experienced writer of satire, burlesques, and comic opera. Sullivan, however, had composed much more “serious” work, including a symphony, several settings of Shakespeare, and liturgical music. It was only when Burnand invited him to one of his own parties that Sullivan made his first foray into operetta. Often the partygoers at the Burnands’ would write, perform in, and/or watch small amateur productions, one of which was an adaptation, which Burnand proposed he and Sullivan write, of John Maddison Morton’s farcical play Box and Cox. It was only ever meant to be performed for and by a small group of friends, all as a way to have some light-hearted fun through making art together. But it was so well-received that it made its way to a three hundred-performance run at the Adelphi Theater, eventually spawning another professional Burnand-and-Sullivan collaboration and starting him off on the path to becoming England’s most influential composer of comic opera.

In my experience, it is situations like these from which some of the best art comes—gatherings of passionate people, bonding over what they can create together, encouraging one another to challenge themselves and grow, and building community and friendship along the way. Though we at HRG&SP are very lucky to have opportunities to connect despite being physically so far apart, I can hardly wait for the day when those opportunities are a little easier to come by.

—OMAH

Reference:
Hibbert, Christopher. Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World. American Heritage Publishing Company, 1976.

Spring 2021 President’s Welcome

Welcome Back!

It’s been a while since we’ve last been able to see each other, but despite the pandemic, HRG&SP is still going strong. I am happy to announce that our spring show will be an extended version of Cox and Box; or, The Long-Lost Brothers, a one act comic opera with original libretto by F. C. Burnand and music by Arthur Sullivan. While not explicitly in the G&S canon, we found Cox and Box to be a show very much in the same style, and one much better suited to virtual performances.

The original cast of Cox and Box consists of three people, which was not very conducive to our organization, which regularly employs a cast of 15-30 people. As a result, I took it upon myself to weave ensemble characters into already-existing scenes, and to add a side plot starring Penelope Ann and her lover, Knox. This work allowed me to delve deeply into the 19th century writing style of the original work, and had me working very closely with our director to reshape the plot.

Being able to add my work to cox and box was both an amazing and humbling experience, and an experience that I would love to share with all of you. Cox and Box will run from April 29th to May 8th; see our “Happening Now” page for performance times, and check back later in March for ticketing information. As always, I would like to take a moment to thank our lovely patrons–it is because of you that we were able to put on Ruddigore this fall, and it is because of you that we are able to continue our work in this virtual environment, with Cox and Box this spring.

If you would like to lend HRG&SP additional financial support in advance of our show, please feel free to donate on the “Patrons” page of our website.

Thank you all so much for your support, especially during a year such as this one.

Ria Dhull ‘23
HRG&SP President

Fall 2020 President’s Message

HRG&SP patrons, friends and community, 

It has been a wild few months. For the second semester in a row, we have been unfortunately kept out of our beloved Ag Theatre. As the pandemic persists and worsens around us, it is unlikely that we will be performing in our theatrical home any time soon. 

While this is disappointing, it does not mean that we won’t be making art and sharing it with all of you! As you may have seen, we’ve been preparing selections from Ruddigore; or, the Witch’s Curse this semester and are ready to share them with our patrons. 

On December 27, we will be holding a Zoom webinar where we will play for you the videos of us singing Ruddigore songs. Find more information about this in the Happening Now section of our website! It will be a fun time with some of your Ruddigore favorites like “My Eyes are Fully Open,” “Happily Coupled Are We,” and “When the Night Wind Howls.” This (successful) experiment in virtual theater was music directed by Colton Carter and Mary Reynolds, two familiar personages who have held the HRG&SP’s conductor baton in previous semesters. Ruddigore was produced by Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, Will Evans, and Ben Topa. We are excited for you all to see our hard work and enjoy some beautiful music.

I am also pleased to announce that next semester we will be putting on a virtual performance of Cox and Box by F.C. Burnand and Sir Arthur Sullivan! This is Sullivan without Gilbert, but it is still a delightful farce with fabulous music. The HRG&SP has performed it before, and we’re happy to put it on again via a new medium. This virtual production will be produced by four dedicated, energetic, and capable Board members: Mary Reynolds, Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, Jasmyne Roberts, and Emma Kay. More details will follow in the coming months, so keep your eyes open for more information about this and other future projects. 

Beyond these artistic adventures, the HRG&SP has spent this semester growing closer as a community. Even without the promise of free food, our weekly online social events have been drawing crowds of undergraduate community members. I am very gratified by the continued strength of the friendship, solidarity, and support exhibited by our members. The pandemic may have taken away our ability to be together physically, but we have remained unified. This is perhaps the HRG&SP’s greatest achievement of the past year. 

As we face the spectre of perhaps another year without in-person performances, I want to thank all of you, our patrons, for remaining interested in G&S and supporting us in our time without revenue or in-person events. 

If you wish to keep us going for the remainder of this crisis, you can donate through Givebutter, Paypal, or by sending a check to:

Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players
P.O. Box 382143, Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA 02238.

Thank you again for all of your generous support. We wouldn’t still be going strong through our sixth decade without you. 

Dutifully yours, 
Ross Simmons ‘21
HRG&SP President

Ruddigore: A Small Ray of Positivity in Virtual Theater

Recently, a fellow board member (AMH), commented, “If you’d asked me four years ago ‘What will you definitely do senior year?’ I would have confidently answered ‘Go to class’.” If you’d asked me four years ago, “What will you definitely do senior year?” I would have said “Sing in choir.”


Both of us turned out to be drastically wrong. AMH is learning remotely, not walking the cobblestone streets of Cambridge or sitting in seminars with her fellow Harvardians, and I’m in my apartment, singing in my room by myself instead of in a performance hall with large groups of people. In fact, the closest I come to choir these days is running rehearsals for our virtual Ruddigore project from my dimly lit basement. 

It takes a special group of people to willingly spend even more hours on Zoom and Facetime when it seems like every class, event, and other obligation is online, and the Ruddigore cast & orchestra are just that special. It’s been a joy to get to hear their voices in rehearsal and as we started the editing process for their final recordings this week–we know you’ll love hearing them just as much when we’ve finished.

Although their voices are beautiful, what I appreciate most of all about the Ruddigore group (and the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players more generally) is our ability to have fun together. We’ve gotten used to seeing each other’s faces on a screen instead of in person and keeping up our witty banter (well, we think it’s witty, anyway) in Zoom chats.

However, it’s less easy to translate group music rehearsals to a virtual format–because of the current limitations of technology (and the way individual internet signals are directed all over the globe), it’s not possible to sing in sync with one another. It ends up sounding like a horrifying cacophony of everyone trying to both stay in time and listen to each other, and no one wants that. 

From a music director perspective, that means our rehearsals this year have been more…silent than usual. When we’ve rehearsed our group numbers, all but one person have to be muted for us to sing “together,” so cast members take turns bravely singing in front of everyone, while the others sing along from their respective homes, unheard by the rest of us. The cast has MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, tracks that include the piano reduction of the full score so that they could practice for their recording alone, and so they can play it while they sing aloud for everyone in rehearsal. We’ve relied more heavily than ever on our trusty producer google drive to hold part tracks (recordings of each individual line to practice with), notes about rehearsal, sheet music, piano tracks, and everyone’s audio and video recordings for editing purposes. (As a side note, if you want any of our practice materials for your own amusement or singing along to G&S in your home, reach out to us at hrgsp.president@gmail.com).

I know I can’t wait until the day when it’s safe for HRG&SP shows to crowd into a room in the Lowell Lecture Hall basement and music directors to plunk out notes while everyone gathers around the piano to sing together, and to come see the wonderful productions the classes after us will put on, but I also realize that longing for that tends to make us fall into bittersweet nostalgia, so I’ve also been trying to keep an eye out for things that are positive about our virtual recording projects. We’ve been able to further our record-keeping efforts, maintaining materials digitally instead of our physical storage spaces; we’ve created comprehensive accompaniment tracks and practice tracks for all the shows I’ve music directed for HRG&SP that can be used in the future & have figured out productive ways to organize them now that Google Drive really matters (this is not sponsored content!) We’ve bene able to reconnect with organization alumni and current undergrads who are spread across the world and with whom we might have lost touch otherwise; we’ve utilized the strengths within our community by encouraging cast members to get involved with the production side by coaching acting, helping create visuals for video recording, and editing video and audio into a final product. Although a virtual semester full of virtual theater pales in comparison to our treasured times spent in the Agassiz theater surrounded by friends hard at work, we have certainly picked up some useful knowledge that we can employ when it’s safe to gather together in Radcliffe Yard again.

–MLR

Un-Opening Night

As the stage manager for the past two HRG&SP shows, I have seen my fair share of opening nights. From my post at the lightboard, I watch the beaming smiles of the actors as they proudly present their work to an audience for the first time. I listen as the Agassiz Theater rings with applause from the crowd, letting the cast members know that their efforts are seen and appreciated. I think of my peers, both onstage and offstage, who have brought their commitment, expertise, and passion to the project over the many months of preparatory work leading up to opening night. All of the time, energy, and love coalesces and is condensed into those two short hours. I am always grateful for the relative privacy of my position at the back of the balcony level, because it is often quite an emotional experience for me.

I love opening night not only for what it is, but what it represents. As a stage manager, I have the privilege of witnessing the life cycle of a production. From the first note sung in the rehearsal room to the first peal of applause on opening night, I watch the show grow and develop into the production that we ultimately present to our audience. Until the last stock flat is returned to the scenic shop after our closing performance, I am locating actors, sweeping stages, and calling cues. As I believe many do, I feel a sense of parental responsibility to and pride in the show. Opening night is the first chance to share with others what I have seen all along: the extraordinary work of my friends and colleagues in bringing Gilbert and Sullivan’s timeless operettas to life. The evening is a testament to the strength of our community and the talent of its members.

This semester, I was excited to experience opening night as an audience member. I thought that last Friday, I would be sitting in the familiar red velvet seats of the Ag, adding my own cheers to the thunderous applause after the final chord. As a prospective viewer, I am disappointed not to see what I am sure would have been a tremendous production. As a frequent member of HRG&SP production staffs, I am heartbroken. I feel tremendous sympathy for the cast, staff, and orchestra members who will never see their opening night. The weight of the cancellation of Kiss Me, Kate! is felt by the entire community. I find myself thinking often of the production’s wonderful stage manager, who will miss the experience of sitting in the back of the theater, overwhelmed by the force of her gratitude towards the show’s team and her pride in the product that they have created.

During the past few weeks, however, I have witnessed something as powerful as the opening night experience, if not more so. Current students and alumni alike join weekly social events over Zoom, sharing updates from their homes around the world through the videoconferencing platform. Staff members busily recruit for Ruddigore; or, the Witch’s Curse and make all necessary arrangements to hit the ground running in the fall. The Board looks to the future, preparing our group for the many opening nights that lie ahead. Despite frightening and disruptive global circumstances, the strength of the HRG&SP community has not wavered; rather, I find myself in awe of the resilience of this organization and its members. Since returning home, I have drawn comfort and support from my HRG&SP connections more than ever before.

In my recently gained free time, I have been reflecting on why I am always so deeply affected by the first performance of a show. For me, opening night is not special primarily because of the date or the venue. I treasure those moments because they encapsulate the passion and effort of people that I love. While we have lost one of the best opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate our organization and the work of its members, the HRG&SP community stands strong. That knowledge gives me more joy than all of the opening nights combined.

“Opening”; or, The Fire-Curtain Variety Show

Friends, believe me, if you were not here for our Friday show (or rather, lack of show), you missed out on a truly surreal and (in retrospect) kind of funny situation. For the senior board members of HRG&SP, it certainly made for an eventful final opening night! Allegra Caldera ’17 recounts the tale.


Written by Allegra Caldera

Last Friday, well-dressed audience members made their way across Radcliffe Yard for the first night of The Sorcerer. The cast chatted and applied makeup downstairs in the dressing rooms, and orchestra members warmed up with exercises and scales. Little did they know what the old (dare I say haunted?) Agassiz Theater had in store… DISASTER. Kind of. Disaster turned inspiration? Disast-piration?

Continue reading ““Opening”; or, The Fire-Curtain Variety Show”