Trying to emote the right mix of confusion and horror when a seemingly mundane discussion about lab work takes a disturbing turn is hard enough for any actor—pulling off that same scene while masked in front of a live audience requires a whole other level of acting.
Fourth-year theater student Ashley Lyon says she’s up for the challenge, and audiences can see for themselves starting Thursday night as Lyon and other actors take the stage wearing clear masks in the university’s first in-person theater production since the start of the pandemic.
“They definitely are barriers to communication, but mostly the masks just necessitate some extra attention to volume, diction, and body language,” says Lyon, part of a broad ensemble cast performing “Love and Information,” a play that looks at human connections in the digital age through a series of 57 brief, unrelated interactions.
“Honestly, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not distracted by face masks anymore. I hardly noticed them throughout rehearsals, even when we were all in opaque masks,” Lyon said, adding that the safety precautions are worth it after more than a year of performances without the instant feedback of an in-person audience.
“The energy between a live audience and the actors on stage is unmatched. There’s something very special about being in physical space together and knowing that I’m sharing my onstage experience with audience members, and vice versa, in real-time,” says Lyon. “This play is the first chance I’ve gotten within Northeastern’s theater department to actually perform for a live audience, and I consider it a huge gift.”
Both the audience and the performers will be wearing masks during the performance as a safety precaution, says Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who chairs the Department of Theatre at Northeastern. Ocampo-Guzman is also limiting the size of the audience in the small Studio Theatre, located on the second floor of the Curry Student Center, to 60 people instead of the 95 seats normally available. Performances will run from Oct. 14-24.
“It’s really weird because we are back and in person, but it’s not exactly the same as before,” says Ocampo-Guzman. The theater department held its last in-person performance on Feb. 23, 2020, the closing night of a play called “Mary Stuart.” Within weeks, the Boston campus shut down to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“We humans are so resilient, and we get used to things very quickly,” says Ocampo-Guzman, who revamped his classes and theater productions to be virtually accessible.
“It was an interesting time, and it definitely pushed the boundaries of what we consider performance to be,” he says. “At the same time, being able to go back to the theater and being with our students and colleagues has been delightful.”
The electric hum of opening night preparations filled the air Tuesday as everyone from the stage crew to costume design made some final touches before Thursday’s debut. The production’s stage manager, Hannah Marks, a fourth-year theater and math major, scanned the multi-functional set, still wet with paint touch-ups.
“One of the concepts that we have for this show is technology and how the whole digital world has changed how we communicate in relationships,” says Marks. Cell phones will serve as the only props the actors carry on stage.
Marks, a veteran at the university’s theater department, has worked on in-person productions before the pandemic and the virtual performances that took place over the last year. None of them compare to the anticipation of this show, she says.
“We’re back live, so whatever happens, happens and there’s no changing it,” says Marks. “I’m just glad we’ll have all that energy in the room because a performance is so different when it’s in front of people. You can feed off of the energy of the audience instead of performing for an empty room.”
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