Blog

The Transition Back to In-Person Theater

Autumn is the time of new beginnings and reunions. It has a special meaning for me this year after the long duration in the age of Zoom and the return of the Harvard community to its hallowed campus. As a sophomore, I had no real experience of in person life and theater at Harvard last year, so having the communities I joined on Zoom, including the fabulous HRG&SP, helped my transition from virtual to in person theater and Harvard life tremendously. From maintaining production and Board traditions to the in-person UNOs, my love for this organization has grown since I have been on campus and I know that will only continue.

As a member of the new board class and a sophomore never having been in a Harvard theater space before, my beginning days on campus were filled with excitement and nerves. My first time in the Agassiz Theater was during auditions for The Pirates of Penzance, and I was overcome with a mix of trepidation, exhilaration, and wonder. Surrounded by people who I had only seen on a Zoom screen, it was a surreal experience to share energy in the same space and see if our height predictions were accurate. The connections formed over Zoom have strengthened the experiences of in-person theater, from creating music in time with other people with no Zoom lag, having little moments with others on stage and interacting with others in real time, to rehearsal breaks and sharing snacks and stories about our day. Every rehearsal is filled with the sounds of beautiful voices and cheery smiles under the masks and I cannot wait for the experience of performing in front of a live audience with the cast and crew of Pirates; it is an amazing production with wonderfully talented performers.

Knowing that I get to make art through performances with my colleagues and friends here and at other spaces on campus for the next three years is truly a gift, and I am looking forward to the adventure.

—ARW

P.S. If you want to experience in person theater again, come see The Pirates of Penzance at the Agassiz Theater November 11, 12, 13, 14th !

A Row of Theater Seats

Hi! I’m Sophie Kim ’24, and I’m a sophomore in Lowell House. I’m the Technical Producer for our upcoming production, The Pirates of Penzance, and an HRG&SP board member. I’m a performance poet, playwright, and lyricist/librettist.

This is my first semester of in-person college and in-person theater at Harvard, and I have to say, it’s off to a great start! As someone who’s primarily a writer/performer, and spent last year co-writing a musical that premiered virtually, taking on the role of producer this semester has taught me a lot. There’s something so exciting about looking around the room during a production meeting for Pirates and seeing all the amazing, talented people who are making this production possible. Getting to see designers talk about their ideas has given me even more respect for designers’ ability to imagine entire worlds, just from a script. I’m so excited to see what our wonderful actors bring to the stage, and to help contribute to making the production happen. 

Since the start of the semester, I’ve really started to notice what I had missed about in-person theater: the coffee runs during auditions and callbacks, the laughs in rehearsals, sitting around a table together envisioning something that none of us could do alone. I don’t think I really realized how much I loved the collaborative aspect of theater until that ability to collaborate was challenged. In my last post, I wrote about walking past Farkas Hall, not able to go in yet. Just standing on the outside, waiting. I’ve now seen the inside of Farkas (it’s beautiful), and the Agassiz Theatre, and the Loeb Drama Center. Of course, it’s not necessarily about the place itself, but the people who make the place a home. And now, we can sit in a row of theater seats together and think, This is it. We’re home.

—SK

Fall 2021 President’s Welcome

Hello, and welcome back!

First, a sincere thank-you for your continued support through (more than!) a full year of remote theater. Despite the exciting opportunity for innovation offered by virtual productions, I believe I speak for everyone in our community when I say that it’s good to be back.

The weather is slowly getting colder here in Cambridge, where students have once more returned to Harvard’s campus to attend in-person classes. HRG&SP has also returned, and I am excited to announce that our fall show will be a full production of The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty! Featuring songs such as “I am the Very Model of the Modern Major General,” “Poor Wand’ring One,” and “I am a Pirate King,” this operetta is a landmark in the history of music and one of our favorite Gilbert and Sullivan shows.

The Pirates of Penzance will run from November 11 through November 14. Tickets will go on sale at the Harvard box office a few weeks before opening night. If you wish to buy tickets before the general public, you can do so by becoming a patron. We will be mailing a special order form to our patrons next week, so be sure to join our mailing list soon to get the patron letter and order form. You can find it under the “Patrons” tab of this website. 

We are planning to perform the show live and in-person at our historical venue, the Agassiz Theater. Unfortunately, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, our actors and musicians will have to perform while wearing masks, and we may have to impose restrictions on audience capacity or vaccination status. We are working closely with the Office for the Arts at Harvard to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus, and we’ll release more information about any COVID-related restrictions as the show approaches.

We have an excellent cast, crew, and orchestra, including a record number of new G&S players, and I look forward to seeing them shine onstage, backstage, and in our orchestra pit in November. I hope you can join us for our return to in-person productions!

Warmly,
Clarissa Briasco-Stewart
HRG&SP President

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

A Toast to the Prefrosh

On Saturday, April 17, the HRG&SP hosted an event for admitted Harvard students. During the second (and hopefully final) virtual Visitas, several young people came to hang out in a Zoom call with a few of us older and more experienced G&S hands. 

I did not go to my own Visitas four years ago, but I have participated in a couple as an organizational leader. In the pre-pandemic system, we had to shout intriguing slogans to passing strangers in order to encourage them to stop at our table and sign up to receive information about our organization. It was a loud, rambunctious, chaotic, and often unsuccessful technique. However, we would get some gems to stop by and write down their name and email address. One of those gems was our very own Clarissa Briasco-Stewart. She is now the Secretary of the HRG&SP and an accomplished cellist, lighting designer, and producer for our little theater troupe. I thank the heavens above that she decided to stop by our table after we, to the consternation of our neighbors, broke out into a rousing rendition of “With Cat-Like Tread.” I hope that the several people on our Visitas Zoom call today turn out to be such beloved and valuable community members as Clarissa. 

On that Saturday, we sat in a Zoom room, fumbled with screen sharing, and showed these newly admitted students the trailer (soon to be released to you fine people) for our Spring production, Cox and Box. Then we took some of their questions. 

There is one thing to be said about the Zoom call format. It allows us to speak to and get to know those who stop by a little better than we would have if we just snatched them out of line at the activities fair in the SOCH during normal Visitas. We had an accomplished and enthusiastic number of attendees who brightened my day and lightened my heart. I got to learn a little bit about them, and the little I learned impressed me. 

I say to you, dear reader and community member, that it was amazing to meet these prefrosh (the affectionate term for people who are not yet first-years). Their energy, excitement, and curiosity was wonderful to see. As a senior on his way out, it did my heart good to see a bunch of people just starting off on the journey I am about to end. 

Therefore, I offer them a toast. 

To the prefrosh!

May they make the right choice and choose Harvard; become involved in a reasonable but not excessive number of rewarding extra-curricular activities (like the HRG&SP); bring fresh ideas, fresh energy, and fresh faces into our ranks; participate in old traditions and make new ones of their own; make close friends; eat good chocolate mousse; drink fruity drinks; and savor each passing moment of the next four years. 

If these promising newbies join our organization, I know that the HRG&SP will be in safe hands. That’s the best one can hope for as one departs. 

—RDS

An Ode to the Ag

During the course of my undergraduate career, I stage managed one show after another in the Agassiz Theater, beginning with The Gondoliers in the spring of my sophomore year. Seeing the theater full of people during a performance was always a special experience, but my favorite moments in the Ag were the quiet ones. While the seats were still empty and the dressing rooms not yet buzzing with the sound of actors getting into costume and warming up, I used to turn on the aisle lights and sit on the edge of the stage. In those moments, I always imagined I could feel the theater waiting, wanting to be filled with music and laughter and life.

One of the last visits I made before leaving campus in March 2020 was to the Ag. Fellow board member CRBS turned on the light board, and we made the stage glow purple and teal and amber while we played music, danced, and soaked up our last moments in the theater. Eventually, the others headed off to pack and make plans for their departures. Left alone in the space and not knowing how long I might be away, I turned off the light board and returned to my familiar seat on the edge of the stage. The aisle lights cast a gentle glow, appearing in the darkness of the theater like rows of perfectly aligned stars.

As my time at Harvard comes to an end, so too does my career as a stage manager. I may never again be the one to open the theater, to feel the quiet anticipation that fills the Ag in the hours before a performance. But I will remember that feeling forever.

—AMH

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.

Paper Tech

Nothing says committed quite like an 8:30 am meeting, and that’s what the Cox and Box staff were up to Wednesday morning when we would have much rather been asleep. Why, you ask? Well, it was an auspicious day in the life of a show: paper tech!

In a “normal” show, paper tech would take place about two weeks before the show and serve as an opportunity for us to talk through the technical aspects of the show and prepare for any potential problems that may come up during actual tech. Although I’ve previously music directed several shows with HRG&SP, this is my first stint as producer. Cox and Box is definitely a unique project, and paper tech is no exception.

For this online production, we’ve broken up this particular event into two parts. In the first part, which happened this morning, we talked through all of the prerecorded video material that will make up the show, led by Sam Dvorak ‘23, our fearless stage director. This is in preparation for actors starting to record their videos, which they will be doing next week!

Sam has made a shot-by-shot breakdown of each music-video style song, and today we took copious notes on changing backgrounds, green screen positions, where we’ll need more complicated editing techniques, and how many recordings each actor will have to make. Sam, our set designer Isaac Heller ‘23, stage manager Ruth Jaensubhakij ‘22, my fellow producers Clarissa Briasco-Stewart ‘24 and Jasmyne Roberts ‘24, and I talked through each shot, bringing up any potential problems and keeping track of things the actors and video editors will need to know to bring the show to life. Even though it was very early in the morning for a group of college students, I think it left us feeling rejuvenated and excited about the show! Sam’s vision and the hard work of our designers, technicians, cast, and orchestra is starting to really come together, and we cannot wait to share it with you!

So what’s next in the job of a producer? Well, we’re starting to put together audio for the songs, so we’re getting all the individual tracks in and Jasmyne is deftly handling audio editing logistics. We’re also getting props and costumes to actors this weekend, and preparing them for their next audio recording deadline in Zoom rehearsals this week. And since I’m playing viola in the orchestra, I have a track of my own to record before Sunday, so I’d better get practicing!

Once we’ve gotten all the recorded aspects of the show underway (or at least acquired footage from the actors), we’ll turn our attention to the scenes of the show, which will be performed live, and the technology necessary to merge prerecorded songs with live scenes!
If you think this sounds like a significant amount of work, you’d be absolutely correct, and we hope you’ll watch it when we’re finished!