The people behind the production: Tech for UI’s mainstage share how theater has changed during the pandemic

The technical team of ‘The People Before The Park’ gave The Daily Iowan a behind-the-scenes look at virtual theater nearly a year after the pandemic hit Iowa City. Crew members shared their struggles and triumphs during the production process.


Tate Hildyard

Actors Steven Willis, Branden Shaw and Kate Anderson perform in Before the Park on Thursday, March 10, 2021. Before the Park is set in the predominantly black community of Seneca Village as its citizens are being forced to flee so New York City can build Central Park over their land.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

In a normal year, a typical rehearsal at the University of Iowa Theatre Building consists of the director working up close with the actors, stage managers and crew members. All of them would move freely about the space to tend to tech and scenery, and to maneuver equipment on and off stage.

Those were the days when everyone was preparing to perform in front of a live audience.

The People Before The Park will be the first full-length mainstage production performed this academic year. Like the season’s previous mainstages, it will be streamable from the comfort of viewers’ homes.

With COVID-19 continuing to limit the way the Theatre Department normally operates, taking this play on required changes in all forms of technical production.

The show follows a community of Black New Yorkers in 1856 whose Seneca Village homes are at risk of being demolished for the construction of Central Park.

Stage manager Brillian Qi-Bell, who organizes and oversees rehearsals, among many other responsibilities, described the challenge as “putting on a show in basically half the time at the same level of production.”

The team’s in-person rehearsal schedule was reduced to the bare minimum because of COVID-19 safety concerns. Many other theaters are also taking a minimalistic approach to record their shows.

Changes in Iowa City theater are reflected nationwide, where most productions have shifted to virtual platforms. Locally, City Circle Theatre Company in Coralville and Riverside continue to operate virtually. Hancher hasn’t hosted a theatrical performance in a year, mirroring Broadway’s closure since March 12.

This is why it came as no surprise that the cast and crew of The People Before the Park were given significantly less time to rehearse in person. With only two dress rehearsals, the technical team had to rely on weekly production meetings over Zoom to prepare for the real deal onstage.

Qi-Bell said there was much less time for blocking than usual, but the team was determined to get it right because there would be no cuts during scenes in order to preserve theatricality.

“It is a theatrical experience, there’s just some mild adjustments,” Qi-Bell said.

Other safety adjustments include backstage areas separated by plastic barriers for each actor, masks worn during rehearsals, and the team’s director, Jade King Carroll, being virtually present on a TV screen while physically in New York.

Kate Anderson, who plays Bridget Donnely in the production, said that adjusting to a virtual director was a bit strange, but ultimately worked well. She was also surprised to find that performing during the pandemic didn’t feel as different as she expected.

“You can’t go into it with a bad attitude,” Anderson said. “You just have to be present as an actor, do your best work, and trust each other and yourself to work through technical stuff.”

Many of the technical challenges were taken on by Director of Theatre Bryon Winn.

Knowing that it would be difficult to bring in electricians for the lighting needs of each mainstage this year, Winn began working on a Rep Plot— a lighting system that can remotely adjust lights through a computer— in September, with the intent of using it for each show this year.

“We were fortunate to have those technologies in place that allow us to produce differently than even five years ago,” Winn said.

Winn said getting the lighting correct is crucial to show, both in how it shows up on camera and to reflect playwright Keith Josef Adkins’ vision.

This isn’t the first time Adkins’ work has been performed on the UI’s mainstage. His piece A Refugee in Detroit was commissioned for 6 by 6: Collected Perspectives on Social Justicewhich gave a platform to playwrights of color in October.

“When Keith wrote the play, he was very specific about the times of day. There’s an arc to them,” Winn said.

Lighting for a camera is a different skill set than lighting for a live audience, Winn said. The Director of Theatre wanted to find a way to make the lighting feel theatrical while still working on camera. To create this effect, Winn experimented with different levels of color and value contrast.

“A shader or video engineer would be terrified of the kinds of color mixing I’m doing onstage,” he joked.

In addition to finding balance between camera and stage lighting, Winn affirmed that the show stayed theatrical by capturing moments that a live audience would see in a theater.

“We’re flying in scenery over a scrim — you see the actors come onstage and offstage during transition areas,” Winn said. “Those kinds of things would be edited out in a movie. We’re trying to capture what’s unique about a theater.”

The only live theater moment that viewers will be missing are the scene changes. Since the stage crew had to be downsized to the bare minimum to maximize safety, set changes will take much longer than usual and will be edited out of the final cut, Winn said.

Sound design is also operating differently. To ensure quality sound, sound effects will be added in post-production instead of played live. During a rehearsal, the sound effects were played to the actors so they know what they’re reacting to, but they will not hear the effects during actual filming.

For all to run smoothly, multiple forms of communication were utilized. Winn said the crew was simultaneously communicating with different members through Zoom, text, and phone calls, all while livestreaming rehearsals to King Carroll, the director.

“It’s a culmination of a lot of innovation and technical ingenuity to get that communication string together,” Winn said.

Despite the unprecedented challenges the tech team faced, the show will be streamable from March 26 through April 4. Virtual tickets are required to attend but are free of charge.