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Herriman Journal

Shakespeare goes cyberpunk to embrace performing in a pandemic

Apr 19, 2021 10:06AM ● By Jet Burnham

Students will create special effects for fairy magic for their film of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Preparing a theatrical production during a pandemic has been a challenge for high school theater teachers. 

But instead of fighting it, Providence Hall High School’s theater teacher Jon Liddiard embraced the circumstances. He opted to make a cyberpunk film of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” instead of a live performance and chose to make mask-wearing and contagious diseases part of the storyline.

By amplifying a minor subplot in Shakespeare’s script, which blames disruptions in nature and social contention on the spread of “rheumatic diseases,” Liddiard felt justified in including masks in the costumes.

“I thought, ‘How do we do this safely but also how can we have fun with it and make it part of the storytelling?’ and those two things came together for me with cyberpunk,” Liddiard said.

Actors playing royals will wear velvet or lace masks while lower-class characters have rags tied on their faces. The fairy magic in the play has been reimagined into technology-based antics so that actors in those roles wear painter respirators and gas masks. 

Creating a film instead of a live performance has provided Liddiard’s film and theater students with unique learning experiences. Students are responsible for the decisions and execution of filming, sound, lighting, costuming and set design.

With 25 years of experience in the theatrical world, Liddiard could retain more control of the show, but he chooses to act more as a facilitator.

“I usually present them with a problem, tell them what I'm looking for and allow them to design or execute it, allowing their creativity or their passion to drive them to a solution,” Liddiard said. “It’s some of the most exciting learning possible. They’ll think of solutions that I hadn't considered or ways to go about working within a budget to make things happen.”

Triniti Welch, a senior and head costume designer, said the experience has pushed her creativity and skill development.

“That is why we have all come so far from where we started,” Triniti said. “He really forces us—in the best way possible—to learn for ourselves.”

Students said every year, Liddiard tries to one-up himself with increasingly complicated set pieces and complex productions that challenge himself and his students. This year’s movie has been a big challenge.

“Film is a completely different discipline and thought than what we have done previously,” Liddiard said. “The students have been understandably kind of intimidated by that change but also really excited about it and risen to the occasion.”

Actors have learned to adapt to acting to a camera, keeping consistency through multiple shots, and shooting scenes out of sequence.

Junior Jaxon Burdette said, while he would normally improvise a fight happening in the background of a scene in a play, it must be precisely choreographed for a film.

“With filming, you have to do the same thing every single time because of all the different shots that are being taken,” Jaxon said.

This is the job of second assistant director Nicole Thurston, who keeps track of every shot and every movement within each shot to ensure consistency.

“It's kind of a tedious job, but it's exciting; it makes it a lot easier for us to go through filming,” said the junior.

Even with the help of student and parent volunteers, it has taken nearly the whole school year to create the film. In the fall, there were delays due to quarantines, school policies and soft closures. By February, the 27 actors and 26 stage crew members were being tested for COVID-19 every two weeks, which meant fewer disruptions to their filming schedule, which was lagging behind.

“We underestimated how much time it would take every day to film,” assistant director Aurora Kruckeberg, a junior, said. “So, that is why it's uncertain about when the film’s going to come out, because we're uncertain about when we're going to end the filming.”

Liddiard hopes to complete filming before April so production students can begin editing and adding special effect elements for the fairies’ technology and the transformation of a character’s head into a donkey. They will also edit any audio problems—dialogue muffled by masks or noise from basketball games which were being played on the other side of the gym with only a plastic partition to separate it from their sound stage during filming.

Plans to distribute the film are not finalized but may include a red carpet premiere and Q&A, a premium opening night stream, a regular stream and a DVD. Check the PHHS theater Facebook, www.facebook.com/phhstheater, for updated details about the film’s release date and viewing options.

Students are excited to share their film with a larger-than-normal audience. Their audience will include Nicole’s family, which lives in the Philippines, Triniti’s boyfriend in New Zealand, Jaxon’s extended family on the East coast, Aurora's family members who are spread out across the U.S., and even their future families.

“It's a movie so obviously it's going to last a lot longer than a play would, and you're going to be able to show it to your children, which I think is something that's super-duper cool,” Triniti said. “It's something that we're going to have for the rest of our lives and an experience that we're never going to forget.”

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