The show must go on

IU Southeast music and theatre departments adapt to COVID-19 with innovative projects

COVID-19 caused the curtain to close on large in-person gatherings, forcing music and theater programs to think outside the box. Faculty, staff and students at IU Southeast found innovative ways to continue to provide art and entertainment to the community.

On Jan. 15, the IU Southeast Theatre Department premiered a unique production of Romeo and Juliet on the Ogle Center’s website. In this production, Director Daniel Hill, re-crafted Shakespeare’s play as a one-hour virtual film for online distribution.

“Amid a global pandemic, I was given the daunting task and immense opportunity to create a piece of theatre,” Hill said. “It needed to be public domain, as we could not pay royalties or charge for tickets. It had to be done safely, socially distanced, and follow all COVID and University guidelines. And it had to be material students could relate to.”

Hill settled on Romeo and Juliet as the perfect play to represent the current COVID-era.

“I thought why not create a virtual production of one of the oldest & most famous stories of teenagers who have been torn apart just like our world today: Romeo & Juliet,” said Hill.

To make this happen in a time of social distancing, Hill used a multimedia approach.

“What audiences will notice that makes our production unique is that it blends theatre, video-conferencing, streaming and film,” Hill said. “All cast and crew remained safe, healthy and virus free during and post-production.”

Hill also made this production truly a work by students: all principal roles were filled by students (besides one character played by faculty member Charles Nasby), and students also participated as extras, stage help and video production crew, operating cameras, editing video and supervising the wardrobe.

A behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Romeo and Juliet.

WATCH: The IU Southeast theatre department recrafts Romeo and Juliet.

Starting in early October, the team rehearsed the play for a month. Filming began in November.

The scenes were all rehearsed and recorded separately, and then the audio and video were edited, mixed, and assembled by the faculty and student technicians.

For Jim Hesselman, dean of the School of Arts and Letters, the production represents an astonishing feat of problem-solving under extraordinary circumstances.

“Going into any new production is always exciting and a bit daunting, but going into a production with so many unknowns and with everyone already at an elevated stress and anxiety level–not to mention the technical restrictions in terms of rehearsing and performing and filming scenes in a safe environment that still met the artistic demands of the playwright and director–was truly uncharted territory,” Hesselman said.

From learning the ins and outs of using Zoom for creative purposes and filming in multiple locations to the logistical challenges of distributing costumes, set pieces and lighting to students working from home, the students confronted and overcame obstacles while the clock seemed constantly to be ticking.

For Hesselman, these types of lessons are the building blocks of successful careers.

“The entire company learned so much by having to try things that didn’t work and then try something else,” Hesselman said. “It’s an experience that was incredibly challenging, but rewarding in that it will be paying dividends to all those involved for the rest of their professional lives.”

Preserving the relevance of a classic tale while pushing the boundaries of theatrical conventions by seeing limitations as opportunities, Hill and his cast produced a work that they were proud to share with the public.

The cast of Romeo and Juliet records a scene of the play via Zoom.

IU Southeast Music Department performing via Zoom

Pictured are IU Southeast students Nikkolas Minton (upper left) and Josh Druin (lower right) and IU Southeast Orchestra members Jenny Miller (upper right) and Chelsea Getty (lower left). Joanna Goldstein, professor of music, is pictured in the center.

Similarly, When it was clear that the IU Southeast Music Department was going to have to cancel its 2020-2021 concert season due to COVID-19, the faculty decided to find a way to continue making music and sharing it with students and members of the community.

“Many university groups around the country were creating videos of its musicians performing classical music, jazz numbers and famous songs,” said Erich Stem, associate professor of music and faculty composer. “We decided to take an ambitious approach to this idea by arranging excerpts from three songs that spoke to Indiana in some way, scored for all of our major ensembles.”

They chose music by two Indiana-born composers, including one tune by Hoagy Carmichael called "Can't get Indiana off My Mind" and two numbers by Cole Porter, "Begin the Beguine" and "From this Moment On." In August of 2020, Stem set out to write what ended up being a three-minute medley of these tunes for a 54-part ensemble. To date, more than 75 students, community members and faculty have participated in this project.

Each musician recorded their individual part on their smartphones and sent it in to be put together by a team of faculty and staff audio and visual experts. Faculty sound engineer, Timothy Haertel was given the task of editing audio by lining up all of the 54 parts of this “mega ensemble” while IU Southeast students Jaime Young Irvin and M Salisbury put together the video portion of the project.

“It is our hope that we can promote this to the public in some way as a message that, despite our current separation caused by the pandemic, we are thinking about Indiana and will be together again soon,” said Stem.

The finished production will be available for viewing online at from Sunday, February 14 at 3 p.m. to Sunday, February 28 at 9 p.m.

Watch a virtually recorded music performance by IU Southeast students, faculty and community members.

Staff Spotlight: Dave Collins