What’s it like making art in a pandemic?
by thomas gallagher, contributor
The Portrait Project, the latest work from the University of Regina Theatre Department, premiered on YouTube near the end of last semester. Envisioned by Kathryn Bracht, Theatre Department head, based on work she saw early in the pandemic, the idea was to have students choose a portrait and then write and perform a monologue based on it at home. And as a recent graduate of the U of R film program, I got to help theatre students learn about filmmaking and edit the piece, getting a first-hand taste of the strangeness, excitement and loneliness of making art in the middle of a pandemic.
This isn’t the first time that the Theatre department has used technology to collaborate remotely. In 2018 the department collaborated with Hugo Solís, a sound artist and professor at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. After visiting the U of R in January of 2018, he continued to collaborate over zoom, attended rehearsals remotely, and performed music live from Mexico that was streamed into the Shu Box theatre during the run of Secrets from the Borne Settee in March of that year.
The difference with this show is that everyone had to go remote, even the audience. Although we had experiences we could draw on to help make it work, none of us knew quite what to expect, so we had to define the process as we went. Even though the process of bringing a particular play to life is never exactly the same as for any other, some elements are fundamental to creating theatre. Generally, rehearsal is one of them. Everyone gathers together in the same space to work out what the play is and how to communicate it to an audience. When you are in the studio together it’s easier to set aside your self doubt and trust in the process.
Because we are in the middle of a pandemic being in the same room was not an option, so all of the students had to do their work from home, including their performances. Without an established blueprint for how that would work there was a chance that it might not. That was scary. There wasn’t much time to dwell on it though. The timeline was short. From the time they chose their portraits at the beginning of September, students had a little over a month to pull everything together, and a week or two to film.
In the meantime, there was a lot to learn. The students involved came from many different disciplines, but no one had much experience with film. While they worked on writing their monologues, students learned about things like white balance, frame rates, and exposure. Chrystene Ells, a local filmmaker and sessional at the U of R, also gave an excellent crash course on visual storytelling (a topic she will be covering in greater depth in a class this January that you should definitely take if you have any interest in the subject).
While students in the theatre department were busy with their monologues, students in Gerald Saul’s Film 412 class were also hard at work. Each student in the class was assigned one of the portraits and set about creating their own response to it in the form of a short experimental film. Without access to the equipment room, film students had to make do with the tools and resources they had access to at home.
As the monologues neared completion, students on the theatre side were gathering the materials they needed to begin filming from whatever was available in their homes. The stage manager, Rachel Butt, also scheduled contactless pick-ups of additional material like some props, costume pieces, backdrops, tripods, and lights. With materials in hand, each student was responsible for setting up and shooting their monologues using their phones.
Whether filming in the corner of a small bedroom, having to work around the sounds of a roommate moving out, or having to film over multiple days to get the right light, that part of the project was complete by the beginning of November. The files were uploaded (or mailed when good internet wasn’t available), raw footage was edited for the monologues, and film students completed their experimental short films.
Then came the task of editing the project together, which was my job. I started with the monologues, which, even though they were all part of the same project, was like editing thirteen separate short films. From all of the work created in isolation common themes emerged. Nathan Coppens, another graduate from the U of R, wrote and performed music that further tied everything together. The work everyone did reflects what is happening now. Themes of COVID and all that has come with it are woven into the piece along with stories and ideas inspired by the portraits themselves.
Creativity unhindered by restraint can sometimes fail to find focus, purpose, and ultimately meaning. We had many restraints to work within, and none of us were certain what we would have or whether it would all work together. But in spite of all the challenges and limitations, or more likely because of them, the end result came together in ways that none of us expected. The pieces everyone worked on in isolation became something more when connected.
I sat down to watch the show with my mother when it premiered on YouTube two weeks ago, along with a hundred or so other viewers that had tuned in for the first showing. Even though I had seen parts of it hundreds of times as I worked on the edit it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I felt many of the feelings I have experienced throughout the pandemic reflected back at me, and for a moment it felt like I was experiencing those feelings with an audience that was bigger than just the people in my house. In that moment, I felt a little less lonely.
You can watch the show now on YouTube (https://youtu.be/dg9kbN2T7sM). You can also read more about the project, and what is next at www.portraitproject.ca