In the age of the pandemic, with live theater largely impossible to put on, theater makers have unquestionably had to innovate and adapt to a virtual format. Berkeley’s student-run theater company, BareStage Productions, is no different, transforming their usual two shows per semester into fresh virtual experiences. This fall, they’re producing two online plays: a modernization of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” directed by Timothy L. Quirus, and “She Kills Monsters,” directed by Laura Hay.
Both directors used the virtual format as a chance to innovate, infusing their own perspectives into the works they directed and transforming the material into something new.
In the case of “Importance of Being Earnest,” Quirus updated the original play, hoping to make it more applicable to today’s world by including the addition of feminist and LGBTQ+ perspectives.
“I wanted to modernize his work,” Quirus said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So one of the first things was I wanted my female characters to be more empowered. I also thought it would be more fun to play with (the) sexuality of characters and to bring in some strong representation of bisexuality.”
While Wilde’s original work is a classic, Quirus’ production hopes to champion inclusivity and assess class relations in a way that is more visible than in the source material.
Additionally, the play is taking on a radio format. “When I proposed my version of this show, I proposed it to their stage as a radio play set in kind of like a hipster New York of today’s world but without COVID,” Quirus said. In this sense, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is able to unpack the dynamics of social class in a more accessible way to today’s audiences.
Furthermore, Quirus dealt with adding five original songs to the play, working alongside student composer Jackson Feller. “He and I have also collaborated on writing songs, like original music pieces based on Oscar Wilde titles to make the show more musical, because BareStage is known for more musical things. So that really stretched me as a creative person … writing lyrics and tunes for songs,” Quirus said.
The addition of music is just another way the show has been updated for a virtual format, aligning with BareStage’s usual goals in providing student-run content, while also infusing the show with a more radio feel as opposed to the original stage play format.
While Quirus had to adapt “The Importance of Being Earnest” for a radio format, Hay’s job was a bit more straightforward; playwright Qui Nguyen released a virtual version of “She Kills Monsters” meant to be performed during the pandemic. Still, Hay used her directing opportunity to put her own spin on the material, incorporating 2D and 3D images into the show in tandem with the actors over video. “I kind of came up with the idea of having a play come from panels — where it’s just still drawn images, to animation, to live video,” Hay said.
In this sense, the transition to a virtual format allowed for a new twist on the play, in which visual artistry carries the creative aspects of the show. As “She Kills Monsters” is structured around the game Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy elements of the play are able to come through more easily, uninhibited by the constraints of live performance. “I liked the idea of having them be not human in the D&D world and then (going) back to the human world and seeing who they are, which isn’t possible onstage,” Hay said.
Both directors reiterated their struggles with performing virtually, having to adjust their perception of creating theater and their ideas of what directing meant to them. “You have to modify your directing style to focus on the recording of the vocals,” Quirus said. “And you have to completely lose sight of the physical, or the images that you would create on a stage.”
As a first time director, Hay went into the experience with open eyes. “I was in a production in the spring that had to go remote, so I was a little bit familiar with the process and what we did then,” Hay said. “But I think just finding the team that we have has been really beneficial, as everyone has been willing to try new things even though we’re all theater people trying to navigate a platform.”
Above all else, these shows seek to be a source of inspiration and community both for the casts of the shows and for the Berkeley community. Quirus reaffirmed the importance of theater as a source of connection during the pandemic, especially for artists who feel so distant from one another. “One of my biggest takeaways from this experience was just how important and necessary it was to have something artistic to do during quarantine,” Quirus said.