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The UNH Theater Scene: different but alive during COVID-19

Fall has finally arrived and to the pleasant surprise of everyone, we are still here on campus, starting our fourth week. For almost a month students have adjusted to this new abnormal, many following social distancing guidelines in a community effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on campus. With that, thinking about the future of the semester and even the school year has become far less daunting. And so, the theater scene at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) has begun to plan their productions for the year. Here’s an inside look with the UNH Theater Department and Mask and Dagger about their plans to continue theater alive on campus during these strange times. 

The UNH Theater Department currently has a robust lineup in store, both for this semester as well the tentative future. Currently, the chosen season consists of a variety of shows: “WE THE PEOPLE”, “These Shining Lives; Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” a puppet play; “Into the Woods;” as well as “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” The department also is tentatively planning on producing two postponed productions from last school year: the dance company’s show “Splash,” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which was performed partially this past spring as a meta play in the wake of COVID-19. However, the status of the latter two shows, as well as “Into the Woods,” are dependent on the state of the pandemic and vaccine in the spring due to social distancing requirements and streaming rights. 

As for Mask and Dagger, UNH’s drama club, their schedule is yet to be announced to the public. However, they have divulged that their plans include a play and musical for the spring. “We are hoping to make all productions as safe and accessible as possible while maximizing opportunities for student involvement,” said Greta Swartz, the public relations person for Mask and Dagger. According to Swartz, these opportunities include events and socially distanced workshops.  

The UNH Theater Department has also found themselves adapting their performance line-up in light of the pandemic, as well as current events and conversations within the department about equity and diversity. “WE THE PEOPLE,” a show told in a series of vignettes centered around current social issues and one’s individual responsibility in our society, hopes to tackle uncomfortable but necessary conversations we as a nation need in our community. Currently, this show will be live-streamed as well as available to a limited audience. 

Other productions such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream and “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins” will be filmed in advance before being available for streaming, a new frontier for the UNH Theater Department and one of the ways the department has overcome the challenges facing theater during the pandemic. And in a poetic fashion that would surely make Shakespeare proud, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be shot mainly in the lush College Woods on campus and the regal Huddleston Hall. Along with streaming, the theater department has opted for shows like “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” that allow for more performance flexibility and social distancing.  

When asked about the future of shows scrapped due to COVID-19, Theater Department Chair Raines Aimes said “Splash will likely be performed as soon as it is safe to dance without having to do social distancing. We don’t have specific plans for the other shows; when we choose a season, we always consider the different types of performance challenges, so it will depend on the combination of plays.” Fortunately for Mask and Dagger, they concluded their season last semester before the pandemic, finishing off the year with “Spring Awakening and “Love/Sick.” 

The pandemic has managed to take an emotional toll on everyone around campus, yet despite this, students involved with theater on campus have been making the most out of these unfortunate circumstances. “We were successful in organizing a Social Media Cabaret that allowed members of Mask and Dagger to explore and focus on ourselves as individual performers,” said Swartz.  

Yet like true professionals, students have also been working together to follow campus protocols and safety measures. “Everyone is actively doing what they can to make our spaces safe,” according to Aimes.  

With so many theater productions struggling across the country in light of the pandemic, it seemed fitting to ask those in theater their thoughts on the controversial topic of theater being distributed digitally in a post-COVID-19 world, especially after Hamilton managed to find an explosive second-wind on streaming platform Disney+.  

“I think COVID is inspiring theater artists everywhere to push the boundaries of the ways we perform,” said Swartz. “Though I believe theater lovers will be flocking to the theaters once this all of this blows over, I think virtual theater will live on as it’s more widely accessible. It really puts into perspective the importance of the arts in all of our lives.”  

Yet while streaming may be more accessible for audiences, Aimes states it still poses challenges for smaller productions. “I think this time of COVID has changed people’s opinions about whether this is a viable mode of distribution, but I don’t think non-profit theaters and colleges will usually have the equipment and funding to make high-quality recordings; however,” Aimes adds, “ I think the streaming of Hamilton emphasizes the disparity between the price of live Broadway tickets and $7 to join Disney+.” 

On a final note, Greta Swartz and Raina Aimes were asked what songs they felt best described the strange times we are currently living in. Swartz named “Waving Through a Window” from the hit show “Dear Evan Hansen” a song about the protagonist’s anxieties and feelings of isolation from others. Aimes on the other hand likened our current situation to the song “Wondrous Boat Ride” from the 1971 film “Willy Wonky and the Chocolate Factory” – otherwise known as the chaotic song Gene Wilder sings during the hellish boat ride scene. Suffice to say, both songs perfectly fit 2020 so far.  

But even if we are living through lonely and truly terrifying times, many of us are trying, whether it be through following safety protocols and socially distancing, or carefully restoring the normalcy we have all gone without for most of this year. Looking optimistically towards the future, things such as returning theater productions, even in new forms, not only provide us with an evening of entertainment but with hope as well.  

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