She stood completely still as she stared down at her bedroom floor. Her face filled with anguish and desperation as the purplish-blue lights cast shadows across the room. The silence was unnerving as the cast members stared at their screens in rehearsal, waiting to see what she would do next. 

Then theatre arts senior Bella Ramirez looked at the camera and said her first lines.

“Yep, that’s it! That’s it,” Josh Machamer, the fall quarter Mainstage director applauded as his face popped up on the Zoom screen 11 minutes later, complimenting their performance.

Ramirez smiled as she caught her breath. She had just finished running her lines during her week five virtual rehearsal.

Having held an interest in theatre for the past eight years, Ramirez is no stranger to the stage, but she’s never performed in a production like this before. From doing her own makeup to performing from her bedroom, Ramirez’s role in this year’s fall quarter show has been different from previous ones. 

Cal Poly’s Theatre Arts Program presents a Mainstage Theatre production every quarter. This quarter, the program is streaming performances of “An Iliad.” University COVID-19 restrictions require the production to be virtual and Ramirez, like the other cast members and the artistic and production teams, had to make some adaptations.

Machamer, also Chair of the Theatre and Dance Department, told Mustang News that he used virtual theatre skills he learned from other performances over the summer.  

Based on Homer’s “An Iliad,” the show follows a group of poets as they relay the tale of the Trojan War. Seven students play the roles of these poets and perform from spaces in their homes. 

On the final days of rehearsals, the students recorded their acts and sent them in to be compiled together. None of the recordings were edited except for transitions. 

Ramirez played Poet #7 and used space in her bedroom as her makeshift stage. It was here that she practiced for weeks until she filmed her final run through. 

Ramirez had an understanding with her roommates so she could properly practice her lines. When she was recording, there couldn’t be any background noise, but she also had to be mindful that when she ran her lines, she wasn’t interrupting anyone. 

Ramirez said that one time, she had to ask them to turn the television down so she could rehearse. 

“It felt weird because I was like, ‘Can you guys not make noise in here so I can go make noise in there,’” Ramirez said. 

Ramirez has performed in three other mainstage productions at Cal Poly. In previous years when preparing for shows, cast members rehearsed for about nine hours a week, she said. 

“Typically, you don’t really have free time,” Ramirez said. “You go to class, you do your work and then you’re at rehearsal and then you go to bed.” 

This year, due to virtual classes, Ramirez had only one or two hours of scheduled rehearsal a week. Although the time was more manageable, Ramirez said, “trying to memorize all the things you need to memorize and get it to performance ready within such a short time with such a small amount of hours makes it a little bit more challenging.”

Without in-person rehearsals and limited time with the director, Ramirez said working through her role has been an independent process. She said she’s never worked on her own for a show before and it was an adjustment. 

“Typically in a play, you are involved in each part of the story as it unfolds. Whereas for this, I wasn’t involved in [everything],” Ramirez said. 

She said she felt that this disconnected her from other cast members of the production. 

Ramirez had to adjust to her new performance environment. Performing her character full out while in her bedroom took her some getting used to. 

She said it was difficult “being in a space that isn’t a performance space and having to get into the mindset of ‘I’m going into a performance and this is going to be the final product.’” 

Mainstage Costume Designer Thomas Bernard created a costume rendering for the virtual production of “An Iliad.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Bernard.

With the help of the mainstage costumer designer and scenic and lighting designer, Ramirez and her bedroom were performance ready. Like Ramirez, the designers also had to modify their work to the parameters of a virtual production. 

The mainstage scenic and lighting designer Brian Healy said that actors showed him their homes and he determined dynamic areas that could be altered for the purposes of the show. Healy sent the actors lighting equipment and props and they installed everything according to his instruction. 

Healy said the department spent around $350 total for scenic and lighting, significantly less than normal. Despite the very low budget, he said he thinks they achieved a very dynamic look. 

“Of the performances I have seen since COVID, ours feels more like actual theatre,” Healy said.

Mainstage costume designer Thomas Bernard said that this year’s costume and makeup looks for “An Iliad” were more simple. He said that since actors did their own makeup and he couldn’t be there to help in person, it couldn’t be too complex.

“[The makeup and costumes] became a little more generic. That’s a terrible word but I can usually give very specific notes to each specific person,” Bernard said. “But you know what, I think it turned out quite well… I was happy with the end results.” 

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Ramirez said she was proud of what she and the program have accomplished. 

“[It] shows how diverse theatre can be in how we get it out to people,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s really cool to see how theatre can adapt depending on what’s going on in the world.”

“An Iliad” is streaming on Nov. 14 until Nov. 30. Tickets are donation based on the Performing Arts Center, San Luis Obispo website.

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