Community Ensemble Theatre–a student troupe that normally performs in Community High School’s blackbox Craft Theater–has been taking “the show must go on” to a whole new level. You pretty much have to these days, since the pandemic has rendered live theater unsafe for artists and audience members alike.
CET director Quinn Strassel was determined to find a way to present Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features newly retired CHS English teacher Judith DeWoskin in the lead role and was slated to open the very weekend that Ann Arbor Public Schools shut down last March.
He wasn’t thrilled at the idea of doing Shakespeare via Zoom, but “I painted myself into a corner … I promised the students that we would still do the show, one way or another. … When you make a promise like that, you feel like you have to see it through.”
So Strassel thought hard about how to turn Zoom’s limitations into opportunities.
“Yes, everyone would be framed in these boxes on a screen, but maybe we could use them in creative ways,” he recalls thinking. He started the process by taking photos of the set in the school’s deserted theater. “It’s eerie,” he says. “The theater looks like we’re just on a pizza break. There are ladders, props set up on tables, and the costumes and the set are all there, ready to go.”
The break has lasted so long that the actors who were seniors last year have graduated. Strassel invited them back to the virtual production, but had to recast some roles. Then the CET team safely delivered costumes and large rolls of green paper for each performer’s backdrop.
In addition, CET got something it’s never needed before: a video editing team. As they assembled the Zoom production one act at a time over the course of a few months, their skills developed. The finished product includes enhanced echoes, haunting music, and glowing visual effects, particularly when the play’s magical characters are on-screen.
The Tempest focuses on an exiled, aging Milanese aristocrat (Prospero in the original, Prospera as played by DeWoskin). She and her daughter Miranda (Ana Morgan) live on an enchanted island with the sprite Ariel (Lily Sickman-Garner) and an enslaved, wretched witch’s son, Caliban (Evan Rago). When a boat carrying those responsible for Prospera’s exile comes near, she brews up a storm that brings them all to her shore, so that she may confront them at last.
In addition to some atmospheric touches, like the sounds of the play’s titular squall, the Zoom production also painstakingly “blocks” the video layout so that characters always face whoever is speaking or being addressed. Though awkward at times–actors occasionally stare up at characters situated over their heads–the convention nonetheless makes the production feel more fluid. Plus, it’s fun to see where Strassel and his team found opportunities to play with frame-thwarting illusions, like a cloak being passed from Prospera’s space into Miranda’s.
So this isn’t your grandmother’s Tempest–it can’t be, given this pandemic moment. But it’s inspiring to see what Strassel and fifty students have managed to cook up in the midst of this crisis. Zoom productions will never be able to replicate the excitement of live theater, of course; but like many of the inevitable compromises of this strange era, there’s bittersweet joy in being reminded, in virtual ways, of the things we most miss and long to make part of our lives again.
The final act of “The Tempest” premieres February 12 at 7:30 p.m. on, where all five acts can be found through the end of academic school year.