Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
If you are familiar with the inner workings of theater, you have most likely heard this phrase at some point. In the quick-paced world of acting it’s easy for things to not go according to plan: forgotten lines, a misplaced prop, set pieces falling down mid-scene. It is with this that those in theater have learned that flexibility is an absolute necessity when taking part in any production. But sometimes things go wrong in ways that are outside of our control despite our best efforts, like the consequences of a country in crisis and the negligence of others around us. So when the University of New Hampshire (UNH) went into orange mode of operations last Thursday afternoon in response to the rise of COVID-19 cases on its Durham campus, UNH’s resident drama club Mask and Dagger was faced with the difficult decision of canceling live performances of “Tartuffe”, their first show of the semester. However, quick-thinking, coordination, and flexibility managed to save the show.
Before the school year even started, Mask and Dagger began to plan on how to perform productions safely: “The Executive Board spent the entire summer trying to plan out how to do theatre that is going to be COVID-19 safe, and I would say that we have been pretty successful,” says Bryson Badeau, president of Mask and Dagger. Such safety measures were seen in the club’s Play in a Day production back in October, where mask-clad actors were able to perform for audiences via live streaming on Facebook. However, despite this, the expected yet nonetheless fast declaration of orange mode of operations at UNH left the organization in a difficult situation according to Badeau: “All of our directors have had backup plans for if we had to go completely remote, but with the suddenness of Orange Mode and its proximity to opening night, it would have been impossible for us to move this show online.”
While the show’s live-streamed performances were canceled, not all hope was lost. For on the day orange mode was declared, the members of Mask and Dagger acted fast.
“When we heard about going into Orange Mode, our president Bryson Badeau sprang into action to discuss our options with the Chair of the Theatre and Dance Department,” says Tartuffe director Julia Sommers. Although at the time the Dean had granted the organization permission to continue on with their live performances, the tension of campus being put into Orange Mode left the members of Mask and Dagger on guard- and inevitably prepared: “We went into rehearsal knowing it may be our last chance to get the show on its feet, so we threw the actors into their costumes, gave them the props that had just been delivered in the mail, and recorded on a phone what was essentially a week-early dress rehearsal,” continues Sommers. “The run went incredibly well and we left the theatre with our heads held high.”
Performing the run-through was a challenge in itself: “Chaos. Pure chaos is the perfect term to describe it,” says Reese Yeatman, one of Mask and Dagger’s freshmen members who plays Valere in “Tartuffe.” Prior to what would become the show’s recorded performance, the production had not yet started tech or dress rehearsal, leaving the play’s cast to give it their all: “There was a lot of anxiety, and the atmosphere at the performance was incredibly tense, knowing that it might be our first performance, and our last at the exact same time,” he said.
It would be later that same Thursday night that the organization’s executive board, after careful deliberation and concerns over safety, decided to cancel the live performances and in-person rehearsals for the play. “The cast was disappointed but overall, we were all glad for the opportunity we had and the org’s decision to keep us all safe,” says Sophie Calderwood, secretary of Mask and Dagger who also plays Dorine in “Tartuffe.”
Although the dress rehearsal recording has allowed for Mask and Dagger to share their hard work in the end, the organization’s experience last Thursday remains bittersweet amongst members: “The theatre industry is suffering more than most other industries because of COVID,” says Badeau, “We were finally able to find a way to do safe theatre, and we were stripped of what could have been an incredible show because careless people want to go out and party/go to gatherings without a mask on.” While the number of new cases of COVID-19 has been lessening across New Hampshire over the past month, cases at UNH’s Durham campus have been on the rise, a trend that has been attributed to large gatherings off campus since the start of the semester, to the frustration of many on-campus students. However, among this understandable disappointment comes an appreciation for having the opportunity to perform in-person, even if only for one night. “My favorite part of directing was just seeing the play come to life – we rehearsed on Zoom for so long that when we were finally able to work in-person it felt electric,” explains Sommers. “Every member of the cast and crew gave their all and that’s all a director could ask for.”
Like many challenges, the cast of “Tartuffe” found themselves learning more about acting as well as themselves throughout their preparation for the show.
“It taught me more self-confidence,” describes Yeatman. “ I struggled with that for a long time as I could never seem to get a named role (Last time was 8th grade!) so when I saw my name on that cast list I was OVERJOYED! I finally felt capable as an actor. It taught me to believe in myself. Regardless of what happens in the future, I’ll cherish getting this role for years to come.”
“Julia Sommer was an amazing director and truly inspired me to a point in my acting career I don’t think I’ve reached before. I also loved being able to be with my best friends in rehearsals and work together collaboratively to create such a beautiful piece of art,” says Calderwood, “Even though we were masked, the passion behind every actor involved was enough to transport me each day to the world of this play–I truly could not be more grateful for such an amazing cast and crew.
“Tartuffe,” an older classic comedy by Moliere, serves as a way to shake up Mask and Dagger’s usual contemporary repertoire and to have audiences connect with older works of theatre. “Tartuffe is the strangest and most beautiful mix of tragedy and farce,” describes Director Julia Sommers, whose education is based in classical theatre, “On the surface, it is a laugh-riot comedy, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find incredibly deep and complex characters and storylines.”
Interested viewers can purchase tickets for “Tartuffe” from Feb. 18 through Feb. 20 at the MUB ticket office at https://unhmub.universitytickets.com/, where they will be linked to a stream of the show.