Watch the opening number from In Real Life, performed virtually by the entire cast from Sheridan’s Honours Bachelor of Music Theatre 2020 graduating class.
Daniel Allain was counting down the days since he first found out he’d play the lead character in the Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP) production of In Real Life.
Although the fourth-year Sheridan Honours Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance student had already signed with an agent, the final show of Theatre Sheridan’s 2019-20 season was going to be his first big moment in the spotlight. It was also a chance to work under renowned Canadian director Ann Hodges, something Allain couldn’t wait to list on his resumé.
“This show was my motivation for six months. It was going to be the icing on the cake,” says Allain, who’d won the leading role way back in September. “And then suddenly, there was no cake anymore.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Sheridan to suspend rehearsals of In Real Life on Thursday, March 12 — a mere three days after they’d begun. And as devastated as Allain and his fellow students were, it was just as heartbreaking for the project’s creative team.
“I flew home on the Saturday thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, a week ago I was packing to spend a month working on this.'” – Ann Hodges
“This was going to be the highest-budget production a show of mine had ever received,” says composer Kevin Wong, who co-wrote the musical with Toronto playwright Nick Green. “It was going to be the first time we could afford to have a projection designer and things like that.” Even Hodges, who has directed musicals and operas across the country, couldn’t mask her disappointment. “When I was first contacted about working on In Real Life, I embraced it whole-heartedly,” she says of Wong and Green’s story of a dystopian society in which citizens are confined to cubes. “I flew home on the Saturday thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, a week ago I was packing to spend a month working on this.’”
Before Hodges boarded her flight back to Winnipeg, however, the creative team had already come up with a way to continue rehearsals. They would do them remotely using Zoom, the popular video conferencing software. After all, as CMTP Producing Artistic Director Michael Rubinoff shrewdly noted: if any show could be produced remotely, it was In Real Life, where characters predominantly communicate through screens.
Remote rehearsal presented unique challenges
The concept of remote theatre production wasn’t completely new to the industry, or even Sheridan for that matter. Rubinoff and Green were just a few weeks removed from co-hosting a virtual telethon that raised $41,000 for the Actors Fund of Canada, and three of Sheridan’s Music Theatre Degree Completion Program students produced their capstone project over Skype last year. “Nowadays, I often audition people remotely via pre-recorded tape or Skype,” adds Hodges.
But rehearsing a full-length musical over Zoom with participants spread across the country? That presented a unique set of challenges, some of which the creative team were able to anticipate before the students resumed rehearsals on March 23 — and some of which they couldn’t. “The first day back was really difficult,” allows Wong. “We were all learning how to use Zoom together. There was lag. We were trying to figure out how to work the microphones and the cameras. And we were worried we’d let the students down. They were so eager and excited, and we were really scared that it wasn’t going to be a satisfying process for them.”
Slowly but surely, the team began to figure out how to overcome the hurdles of having a director in Winnipeg, a music director (Chris Barillaro) in Montreal, a choreographer (Janie Pinard) in Sudbury, a set and light designer (Joe Pagnan) in Stoney Creek, a projection designer (Nick Bottomley) in Halifax and students seemingly spread everywhere in between. Barillaro and Wong sent song tracks to each of the actors so they could play recordings from their phones, which minimized lag when they sang live during rehearsals. Bottomley re-imagined how video would be captured, Pinard adapted the choreography to fit a video format, and singing was eventually recorded so that lip-synching could be used during final presentation.
“It really forced us to listen to what the other person was saying and actually look at them through the screen. Ultimately, it’s not about the technology, it’s about how we use it and how we’re connected through it.” – Daniel Allain
“Credit to all of our creative team, because every single team member pivoted and came up with a different way of working,” Wong says. “Credit also has to go to Sheridan, because there was never any question we would still receive our full fees for the work despite the production being canceled. That enabled us to set the time aside to do the work.”
The students had to make adjustments as well. “It was hard to remain present and engaged while staring at a screen for seven hours a day,” says Emily McKim. “I can watch Netflix or YouTube for an extended period of time, but you don’t realize how disengaged your face and mind become. You’re relaxing. With this, you have to be hyper-focused.” They also couldn’t feed off each other’s energy, at least not in the way they were accustomed to. “So much of our acting is through our physical bodies and how we’re affected by one another,” Allain says. “It really forced us to listen to what the other person was saying and actually look at them through the screen. Ultimately, it’s not about the technology, it’s about how we use it and how we’re connected through it.”
‘A huge milestone in the development process’
Within a few weeks, the students had rehearsed and refined the musical to the point that they were able to perform it in its entirety on Zoom in front of an audience of parents and close friends. They also recorded and released a video of the musical’s opening number, A Million, which features every student in the cast.
“We’ll be releasing some student audio recordings as well, so they’re able to present what they did to the world,” says Wong. But even if a recording of the entire musical never sees the full light of day (it’s possible that it will be shared with Sheridan’s student body), participants in the project don’t seem too concerned. “I think Nick and Kevin have received so much more to work with,” says Allain. “It would have been great to put the show on its feet, but the essence of In Real Life is literally what we just did. We were all in our own cubes, isolated, talking through screens. How much more real can you get?”
Wong agrees, noting that he and Green may even incorporate some of the glitches experienced during remote rehearsal. “When a screen freezes or someone responds late — some of that stuff is actually funny, real-life stuff we can use,” he says. “There’s a question about whether online processes can ever adequately replace theatre, and I’m of the opinion that they won’t. But theatre is such a developmental process, and online rehearsal could be useful for the continuing shaping of theatre. This has become a huge milestone in the development process of our piece, even though we didn’t get a public-facing production out of it.”
“This has become a huge milestone in the development process of our piece, even though we didn’t get a public-facing production out of it.” – Kevin Wong
And then there’s the benefits to the students themselves. Hodges says she has heard from many students who were initially apprehensive about the project, but end up extremely appreciative. “They felt absolute ownership and that they’ve gained a huge, huge gift of experience and the feeling of being artistically satisfied,” Hodges says.
They’re even able to list working under Hodges on their resumés after all.
“I technically still played the role somewhere. It wasn’t in an actual theatre, but we can be proud to say we were in the first virtual production of In Real Life,” Allain says.
“I’m never going to complain about an injury I might have, or any other setbacks I might suffer, because you really can overcome it. You can overcome anything, even a pandemic. They always say the show must go on. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Pictured at top of page: A Zoom screenshot from Sheridan College’s Honours Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance’s remote production of In Real Life.
Story written by: Jon Kuiperij, Marketing Content/Copy Writer at Sheridan