Arts Editor Maya Campbell interviews and sees the work of Extra Credit Ensemble, a theatre group led by two current Columbia students, in a special PeopleHop/Arts Review combo post.

Extra Credit Ensemble, a theatre troupe created and run by Columbia students, has been working on a full length show, Bard Overboard, written by Harris Solomon, CC ‘22 for almost a full calendar year now. The team was sent home in March after only a few months of rehearsal, but have recently developed a one-act play from the Bard Overboard world for an online festival.  I had the opportunity to interview playwright Harris Solomon, CC ‘22 and director Alex Haddad, BC ‘21.

Bwog: How did you guys meet? How was extra credit formed?

H: So I wrote this play a couple years ago and the first person I took it to was Alex.  I worked with her on a show, Almost Maine, two years ago, my freshman year, her sophomore year, and we became good friends during that. I think it kind of just snowballed and snowballed into a bigger thing. We had this play that we were going to work on together and then we found more people we wanted to bring in. I think we just came to the conclusion that we could build a sort of separate theater community that provided something that the other clubs weren’t necessarily providing.

Bwog: Could you tell us a little bit about the creation and inspiration for the original Bard Overboard?

H: Yeah, a while ago I was talking to a friend of mine who went to an acting conservatory. She worked on a cruise ship for a little and I just heard like a snippet of her experience, mainly how awful it was to be an employee on a cruise ship. I thought there just seemed to be something really funny about the experience of theater people, because I guess I’ve known theater people my whole life, being in such a corporate and contained environment that’s kind of sterile in a lot of ways, but also really weird and like…in the middle of the ocean. I was actually going to write it as a short story or something, but then I decided it would work better as a larger ensemble farce.

Bwog: So you’re going to be in this online festival presenting Bard Overboard – A Global Pandemic Holiday Special, could you tell me about that show? Is that a story within a story? Completely separate?

H: So we were planning to go to the Fringe Festival last year, we had this play all ready to go and we were rehearsing for about five or six months when we were all sent home in March. Alex found something The Space UK, the theater in Edinburgh we had signed on to, had sent about an online festival and we figured we could write like a little sketch with all the characters that was sort of topical to the whole COVID situation.

Bwog: How much did the rehearsal and production process change when everything flipped virtual?

A: Oh, man…Well, I mean, from the beginning, when Harris proposed this play to me, he knew it was going to be really physical and really based on people being together in space, not just it being like a funny script alone. So when we couldn’t physically be together, it became very difficult for us to rehearse the original play, because a lot of what made it so special, wasn’t really possible anymore. We kind of, were of the same mind that it wouldn’t be fair to the actors, or the script, or anyone involved to rehearse it online, especially because we never were thinking we would perform it online, but, when we saw this opportunity, I thought it would be a good chance for us to continue working together. I think one of the most difficult parts of the fact that we’re not working together, besides the fact that we all feel really passionate about this production, is just like we’re all friends now. It was such a fun time to hang out together and it’s been really hard to not see our friends for like close to 10 months now. I mean, it’s been hard for everyone. So this was also an excuse to just do something and have a good time but also work on theater, which we all really love to do. 

Bwog: Do you feel the virtual medium has posed any creative advantages?

A: The thing that I think has been the most advantageous about the virtual platform is being able to really control a lot of the technical elements really specifically. The whole point of this little skit is it’s the cast rehearsing for an ad for the company that Harris invented. If you see the play, I think one of the highlights of the 30 minutes is the ad itself, I think it’s really funny. It happens at the beginning and then you see kind of like the final product at the end. Harris actually was the one who edited the video footage of the ad itself and it kind of makes fun of all of the inane commercials that are playing now of companies trying to get you to buy their stuff and acting like they’re sympathetic to the situation. I think that that could not have been done in person and functions much better, like, virtually in a sort of film/edited medium.

H: And we also had a guy in the cast, Joel Meyers, who is very proficient in video editing, specifically for theater zoom because he just did it for the varsity show. I basically got a subscription to like a stock footage service and cut the stock videos together and then sent them to him. He really did amazing work just editing it all together so that it looked and felt like it was over zoom, even though the video and audio quality was quite a bit higher than if we had just like recorded the whole thing on the platform.

A: He’s in the cast, but he actually edited like the whole thing and we really owe him big time because he did such a great job and gave us so much of his time.

Bwog: Is there any message that you want the audience to really take away from this show?

H: I think that’s a tough question. Part of why I wrote this was because I was kind of a little frustrated with how corporations were dealing with the whole pandemic. There was a thing that went around with like every corporate ad during the pandemic. It was all these COVID ads where, you know, like Ford and, I don’t know, people that make washing machines, they all have an ad where they use images from the pandemic, to use that to their advantage in some way. And, I don’t know, I just think that there’s a comedy and a humanity to that that I think is important to recognize, if that makes any sense.

A: I would also add that I’ve tried my best to watch a bunch of different virtual theatre. Virtual theatre, from the beginning, felt like such an oxymoron and I’ve seen some really amazing things, and some things that really didn’t succeed in a virtual platform. I think we were really hoping that we could create something that was worth watching in a virtual platform, and also was something that was worth the time of the people involved. I think, at the end of the day, the thing that’s been most impactful to us that we didn’t necessarily anticipate from the beginning was the community that we had formed from the larger theatrical community that has felt very isolated and non-existent right now. Making something that spoke to those frustrations has been really wonderful and kind of cathartic and I wouldn’t speak for the cast, but I had a really fun time working with them again on something that I felt was worth working on and I would hope that that is also how they felt.

H: And the goal is also that we continue this and that hopefully this summer we’ll be able to go and do a show in New York for everybody. So that’s sort of the long term goal. We’re really still committed to the original show.

Bwog: Is there anything else you want people to know?

A: I think we kind of mentioned it, but we want to extend beyond this online festival and eventually end up at The Fringe itself so we were also hoping with this project to remind people that we are still working on this larger play. It’s been now almost twice as long of a rehearsal process as we first anticipated, so if anyone who hasn’t heard about this project before, is interested in keeping up with it, we have a Facebook page if anyone is interested in finding out more about us or staying involved or finding out when we have our New York show, or wants to come to Scotland and see it there. We would really love if people followed us on social media so they could keep updated on all of that.

After hearing about their work, I was excited to see Extra Credit’s show later in the week when it was being streamed for The Space UK’s online festival.  The show began with a rehearsal of a television advertisement for the cruise ship company all the characters work for, Wonder World Cruises and Resorts.  The characters are introduced one by one as they say their lines split screen on a zoom call, narrating the video on the shared screen.

The commercial begins with the assistant cruise director Liam McClune’s (Rupert Fennessy, CC ‘20) solemn narration over a collection of grossly overused stock photos of people clad in masks, gloves, and hazmat suits that grace the screen in a black and white tribute to “these trying, unprecedented, painful, deeply disturbing, strenuous, foreboding. alarming, disruptive, irksome, and, most certainly, very inconvenient times.” 

Suddenly the melodramatic scene is interrupted with upbeat music and bright colorful videos of the cruise ship and all its amenities as Liam switches his demeanor to welcome guests back to Wonder World cruises, announcing their return to programming as usual.

The friendly faces of Wonder World take their turn sharing details of the “safety measures” that have been put in place such as wiping down the limbo pole every week and installing floating dividers into the ship’s pools. 

Some of the most memorable performances came from playwright Harris Solomon himself as Steven, a pretentious Prince Charming character performer whose passion for the theatre and sense of “professionalism” takes over as he makes an utter fool of himself during the rehearsal. Blizzard Witch performer India (India Beer, BC ‘20) also stands out as she loudly challenges the performative script of the commercial and reveals that the crew has been stuck in the middle of the ocean since the start of the pandemic, stranded and trapped because no country will let them dock and go ashore.

After a tumultuous rehearsal with crew members mispronouncing words, forgetting their lines, and changing the script completely, the faceless voices of the corporate (Jane Walsh CC ‘23), PR (Alex Haddad, BC ‘21), and legal (Leul Abate, CC ‘23) representatives from Wonder World echo over the scene with notes for all of the actors to portray Wonder World in a more positive light.

The cast is left to rehearse in a breakout room as Liam and the corporate voices interview past guests about their favourite memories from their trips on the cruises. As they share their outlandish and embarrassing stories that reflect rather poorly on Wonder World, Liam becomes increasingly visually uncomfortable.  After the guests exit the call, corporate sighs defeatedly, saying “I’ll see what the guys can do in the editing room.” The breakout room is closed to reunite Liam with the rest of the cast of the commercial who has been busy rehearsing some particularly topical vocal warm-ups led by Steven such as “If Ovid got COVID he would have exploded” (a personal favourite quote). 

In the final commercial we see the rehearsal may have not been rather productive as the cast begins to fall apart before our eyes starting with princess performer Cam (Sophie Poole, BC ‘22) slowly becoming more hysterical as she thinks about the abandoned state of their ship in an unidentifiable location in the middle of the sea. A deathly ill crew member Tom (Nate Jones ‘22) has become so weak from sickness that a fellow employee is forced to move his arms about like a puppet during his lines to breathe life back into his performance for the ad.  Steven, as expected, veers off course from the script and begins to quote Shakespeare before he is cut off by the production team.

The interviews of the past guests have been cut up and injected with the new regulations so their original message is almost unidentifiable. The commercial ends as performer Jerry (Surya Buddharaju, CC ‘23) begs for help for the ship that has been trapped at sea for eight months with nowhere to dock and we are left wondering what will happen to the poor crew on the ill-fated cruise ship.

Solomon’s clever, quick-witted writing created a delightful comedic satire without over-using now classic clichés and jokes that have been employed by comedy groups of all sorts since the coronavirus pandemic.The creative methods of character development and dynamic staging and progression of scenes combined in a blend that kept me on my toes throughout the brief show.

In terms of the technical production elements, I especially appreciated the decision to go all in on the concept of a zoom meeting.  Too often I see shows that supposedly occur on zoom, but fail to highlight any of the features of the app that now define our everyday life.  From issues to the mute button to forgetting your video is still on to being sent into breakout room after breakout room I felt the production really ran with this idea and produced a painfully realistic portrayal of an online call filled with theatre people.

The combination of projected video and photo compilations, shots of the actors, music, and audio elements flowed seamlessly together to create a piece that truly exemplified how theatre should be written and performed to take full advantage of the new virtual medium. Based on this unique performance that showed me that virtual theatre truly can be worthwhile I can’t wait to see what Extra Credit has in store for their next production.

Bard Overboard – A Global Pandemic Holiday Special is available for streaming on YouTube and Bard Overboard’s Facebook page is frequently used for updates on the show itself and other efforts by Extra Credit Ensemble.

The Cast of Bard Overboard – A Global Pandemic Holiday Special via YouTube