After more than a year of Columbia student theater taking place on Zoom or YouTube, in-person shows are making a tentative comeback. Deputy Arts Editor Grace Novarr spoke with Camilla Cox, the director of a recent production in Central Park, about making theater – virtually and in-person.

While virtual theater at Columbia has flourished in the pandemic conditions of the past year, widespread vaccination of the student population allows for something these student theater artists have long awaited – the chance to return to making live, in-person theater. While no in-person productions have taken place on the Columbia campus yet, some members of the Columbia theater community have decided to put on productions independently of the school. One such production recently took place in Central Park. Bwog spoke to Camilla Cox (CC ‘22), who directed the show, about the experience and process of returning to making in-person theater after a year of Zoom.

The musical itself (which first ran at Barnard College in 1959!) is a tale of a boy (Thomas Baker, CC ‘22) and a girl (India Beer, BC ‘20) whose fathers (Joel Meyers, CC ‘21 and Wesley Schmidt, CC ‘22) scheme to set them up for marriage by pretending to be in a feud, building a wall between their neighboring houses that provides the youngsters with a convenient opportunity for clandestine midnight meetings. The fathers stage an abduction of the girl, and when the boy “heroically” saves her, they drop their pretended feud, allowing their children to be engaged. The boy and girl quickly become bored once the furtive element of their relationship is removed, and once the fathers reveal that the whole feud had been a pretense, they fight and separate. After encountering hardship and disillusionment during their separation, however, they find their way back to each other, ready for a stronger relationship built on true feeling instead of false excitement. 

“I think it really fit well as a post-COVID show,” said Cox. “We talked a lot about how the musical is about shedding social roles that you’ve adopted just from living in a society with people, and how shedding those roles mirrors our experience post-quarantine. Everyone basically came out of quarantine almost a different person, because they’ve kind of discovered more elements of their identity that had been masked when they were previously cast in certain boxes. That, and the fact that it has a small cast, and the fact that it was easy to perform outside, made it a good choice for our production.”

The acting performances were great; it was apparent that the cast was having a good time. Paul Hanna (CC ‘23) was a standout as a traveling actor who overcommitted to his role as a bandit. His companion (Madeleine Watkins BC ‘23), whose acting specialty is dramatically dying, generated a ton of laughs as well. Baker and Beer’s chemistry was believable, making it hard not to smile when they reunited in a sweet duet at the end of the show. Meyers and Schmidt were a ton of fun, strutting all around the clearing as they deplored the struggles of parenting in a twist on masculine rivalry. 

The production took place in a small clearing near the Great Hill. The actors were all Columbia students or recent graduates, and the audience members were also mostly students. The sun set slowly over the course of the show, lending a fantastical air to the production. The set itself was minimal and the costumes were subtle, but a more heavily decorated production would have felt superfluous given the natural setting of the show. 

“Doing the show outside was a bit of a challenge,” Cox said. “You have to weatherproof all of your costumes and set. And we had to work around having no budget. Our production designer, Celia, is a legend – she had the concept of doing a really sustainable production. The inspiration was recycled and reused materials and stuff that everyone already had in their possession. That tied into the creative theme of ‘we are an outdoor band of players who always perform outside and we’re always moving and shaking outside’. We used milk crates, and zip ties from my closet. Everyone’s clothes were their own clothes, or my clothes.”

While the Thursday production of the show was cancelled due to rain (a caveat of outdoor theater), the other two showings were well attended. As Cox put it, “Columbia theater people want to see other Columbia theater people do stuff.” Watching the show, there was a palpable sense of joy as the actors got to perform for a live audience for the first time in more than a year; the feeling in the audience mirrored their excitement, as we all remembered that the magic of theater is truly the social relationship created between actors and audience. During online theater productions, the technical skill of the actors and crew is still enjoyable to watch, to be sure, but the lack of immediate feedback from the energy of the audience can make such productions feel slightly stilted. “Actors being together in person is something that I think you cannot rate highly enough,” said Cox. “You just can’t make the same connections with a person via Zoom.” She described watching the actors get emotional during the rehearsal process as they were able to share moments with each other that simply weren’t possible in a virtual space – kiss scenes and well-choreographed fight scenes, for example.  

While there are things that technology makes possible – surrealist digital editing and interesting special effects – there are also technical things that are much harder to execute in the digital space. Musical theater numbers, in particular, are hard to put together virtually, especially when people are singing in unison. Seeing all the cast members singing all together really brought home the powerful organic simplicity of live theater. 

Nevertheless, the past year’s worth of experience with virtual theater will have implications and lessons for theater going forward. Cox explained that, when putting together the production, she was able to cast people that she would previously have thought simply couldn’t be in it due to being away for a certain portion of the rehearsal period. Some of the rehearsals for the musical took place on Zoom or partially on Zoom; it’s possible that occasional Zoom rehearsals may become a standard practice in the theater community. Additionally, virtual theater allows for the possibility of people in different locations, from different communities and cultures, to make theater together. Cox said she thought online theater might persist as “a little niche of avant-garde international production.” Virtual theater presents an interesting alternative for other digital entertainment options; of course, the lines between film and theater begin to blur when both take place on the screen of a computer.

Asked if she thinks there are certain types of shows that lend themselves more to a digital format, Cox suggested, “More modern shows that leave room for interpretation or are surrealist or aware of the fact that they’re theater and that they’re performance, and provide commentary on that. That kind of stuff lends itself to doing something new with the medium of Zoom. A lot of people have tried to produce older plays on Zoom and it doesn’t work as well, because there’s no interaction between the text and the format. The text is going one way, and the zoom interpretation is going the other way. But with more modern stuff, I think you can definitely have an intersection.”

The question of whether virtual theater will persist at Columbia for the immediate future is up in the air. In the ever-changing landscape of restrictions, limitations, and vaccinations, it’s hard to know what will or won’t be possible. But one certainty is the resilience of the Columbia theater community, in whatever form that takes. As Cox put it, “What I’ve taken away most of all in the last year of doing theater without an audience is that it’s not about the audience. It’s about the fact that Columbia students will always remain passionate about making theater.”

Image: The Great Hill via Creative Commons.