SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. -- Union Catholic's Performing Arts Company, faced with several challenges and obstacles caused by the pandemic, turned to an old show business mantra when it decided to go full steam ahead with its Fall Play this year.
"The old saying that the show must go on holds true,'' said Mr. Rotondo, PAC's Fall Play Director. "The Performing Arts Company at Union Catholic has been around a long time, and there's no way that anything is going to stop it.''
Knowing that the play had to be virtual because of the pandemic, Maryann Carolan, the PAC Director, and Rotondo, reached into their play book and pulled out an old favorite with a personal touch, "Love (Awkwardly),'' which they wrote together in 2009 in collaboration with members of PAC. It was UC's Summer Play in 2009 and '13.
Rotondo and Carolan tweaked the title and adapted the play to show what life is like in 2020. They titled the new version "Love (Awkwardly) & (Virtually).''
The 17th Annual Fall Play, presented completely virtually this year, will be shown on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. It will feature a drive-in showing in the UC senior parking lot. It will $25 per car with a maximum of 100 cars. The play will subsequently be shown via Livestream.
After PAC had to postpone its Spring Musical, "Mamma Mia" last March because of the pandemic, Rotondo and Carolan were more determined than ever to make sure the Fall Play happened.
"As soon as we learned that Mamma Mia was going to have to be postponed back in March, we knew we had to make something happen and had to have the Fall Play,'' said Rotondo. "I really wanted to show the power of Union Catholic and the Performing Arts Company, that nothing will stop us. We must look forward and we must adapt. You can't change these circumstances, but you can change how you deal with it, change your attitude. You can't give up. There is a pandemic, but we will persist despite it. I think that's the message.''
Rotondo and Carolan said "Love (Awkwardly)'' was the perfect fit for the fall play this year.
"Plays are a little bit easier to do virtually, so we looked back at our arsenal of plays that we had, and back in 2009 Mrs. Carolan and I wrote, in collaboration with students in the Performing Arts Company, a play called "Love Awkwardly,'' a summer show we did back in 2009,'' said Rotondo. "We subsequently moved it to a New York City production, which was phenomenal. It won Audience Awards and came back for an encore performance. The play has been published by a company called YouthPlays, so it has seen productions at high schools around the country and abroad.
We're very proud of this show. It's part of Union Catholic's Performing Arts history. Seeing it progress is quite thrilling, and it's amazing to see it back on its feet in a new reimagined way.''
Rotondo said injecting the current climate of the pandemic into the play added a flavor of reality.
"The play is based on high school relationships and based on reality, and those challenges don't stop in a pandemic,'' said Rotondo. "They exist within the challenges of the pandemic. So we decided to reimagine the show and adapt it to take place virtually 2020. All the scenes take place over Zoom. It's the same story as the original play with the same relationships and characters, but they are dealing with the challenges of Zoom, and not being able to see each other in person, and quarantine and all that comes with living in 2020.''
The cast and crew have been very busy rehearsing, collaborating, and going into breakout rooms everyday on Zoom to put all the pieces of the play together.
"The play is structured with different scenes that almost exist as their own stories, like a series of vignettes,'' said Rotondo. "Everyone is in their own location, and we record each scene on Zoom and get the best take, sometimes in gallery view, sometimes in speaker view.''
The cast and crew have had to learn a lot and have a much bigger responsibility to make everything work, and Rotondo said everyone has risen to the occasion.
"What the students are learning, is not just the theatrical experience, but also a filmmaking experience,'' said Rotondo. "They have to be cognizant of their lighting, their camera movement, their background. In other words, they have to create a background that's appropriate for the character and their scene. The way they move the laptop and camera around, how close they get to the screen, the difference between a close-up and a medium shot. It's an amazing educational experience for the students. There is a ton more work and things to think about. They have to be their own production coordinators. We can't be there to adjust their lightning or sound. They are in charge of creating this environment, so it puts a lot of responsibility on them, and they have been amazing and a joy to work with.''
Mrs. Carolan said keeping an audience that isn't live engaged can be tricky.
"You have to know enough film school stuff to direct like this, shot angles, where to place the camera, how to make the angles interesting- all of this secret visual communication that happens in this kind of media,'' said Carolan. "When you're in a live audience, seeing a play, you have the freedom to look at whichever character you choose, you can linger on a particularly interesting prop or scenic element like a painting. In film, the director and editor tell you exactly what to look at - it's a medium that I find requires you to think very, very carefully about how you communicate subconsciously with your audience. We have a lot more control over our audience, but now we have to keep them. Rarely does someone walk out of a theatre; culturally, we are taught that we wait until intermission or the show is over. A live audience is trapped to a certain extent. But on the internet? There's so much out there that you really have to engage deeply and quickly with your audience and camera angles, focus and depth play major roles.''
Rotondo said Zoom has been a very valuable tool.
"With Zoom, the capability is amazing because we are able to put them into breakout rooms so they can rehearse multiple scenes at the same time, which we wouldn't be able to do in a face-to-face,'' said Rotondo. "We can record sessions so they can go back and look at their performance, something we'd never be able to do in normal circumstances.''
Mrs. Carolan said rehearsing on Zoom has its advantages.
"We rehearse on Zoom, which at first I thought was going to be a disaster,'' said Carolan. "But we found quickly that it was a huge time-saver and we could get more done more quickly than in person. It's also very important to rehearse this piece as it will be performed. Acting for camera requires a totally different approach than acting onstage. A scene on stage may require an actor to break down sobbing on a couch. On screen you can get a better effect by looking closely at a single tear run down an actor's face. I must say that everyone working on this play has done an incredible job.''
Union Catholic senior Isabella Del Negro, who plays Wendy in the play, said the cast and crew are excited to make history.
"Everyone is really excited for the show because we've never done anything like this before, so it's making history,'' said Del Negro. "I've always been super excited for the Fall Play, whether it was to see it or be in it, and I know a lot of people feel the same way, so it's important that we have the Fall Play because PAC wouldn't be the same without it.''
Del Negro said the play choice and adapting it to the current times makes the play unique.
"The fact that Mr. Rotondo and Mrs. Carolan wrote the script is not only super unique, but them adding cultural references to 2020 in it is so funny,'' said Del Negro. "There are things that people of every generation can laugh at, which I think is hard to achieve. 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, and it's no different for these characters. They all go through their own struggles, and these situations are relatable for all of us trying to make it through these hard times. Even with changing the time to 2020, Mr. Rotondo and Mrs. Carolan were able to capture the essence of Love (Awkwardly) in a virtual setting.''
There are, of course, a lot of challenges with putting together a virtual play.
"Theatre is a live experience, so that piece we cannot recreate, so all the scenes are recorded,'' said Rotondo. "We have an amazing tech crew, which consists of editors who will be editing the show together. They will be editing it to be gallery viewed, close-ups, speaker view, and they will add music and transitions, and fade-ins, and graphics. The next challenge is the fact that we don't have until opening night to practice the play, it has to be done at least two weeks in advance so the editors have time to get it together.''
Del Negro said getting into a good groove has been challenging but everyone is adjusting and making it work.
"A hard part of doing the show virtually is getting a good rhythm,'' said Del Negro. "There can be internet, camera, or microphone issues which cause some problems, so the lines can seem a little odd during rehearsals, but it will come together in the end. However, I think the hardest part is probably getting a good chemistry. Not being able to be with your scene partner in person is difficult, but the cast has already become extremely close, so chemistry is slowly becoming easier to us.''
Del Negro praised the effort of her fellow cast and crew members.
"The cast works hard every day learning their lines, creating their own stage directions, and becoming their characters,'' said Del Negro. "The tech crew will have one of the most important jobs of the show, editing the whole thing together. They are the ones who will basically make the rhythm work, which is a big task, but I know the hard-workers of the tech crew will be able to do it, and make it look amazing. The show is already coming along so well, and it will just continue to get better.''
Rotondo said PAC's production could serve as a blueprint.
"We are in the process of getting this new version of the play published with the hope that other schools will also be able to use this for their fall productions,'' said Rotondo. "Maybe what we are doing here can be used as a blueprint for other schools.''
Carolan said she feels it would be wise for other performing arts programs to take a look at how UC put this play together.
"I've watched a number of online shows that have happened since quarantine,'' said Carolan. "Because they weren't written specifically to be performed online, there was something lacking. I really hope that other schools can use this to keep their performing arts programs alive. And the thing I look forward to the most is seeing how other schools tackle the script and make it their own. It's so fulfilling to share this work with people because everyone can relate to how difficult it was to be a teenager.''
Del Negro is proud to be part of such a game-changing production.
"Doing a play virtually has been an experience that I will never forget,'' said Del Negro. "I'm glad I was able to be a part of it at Union Catholic.''
Love (Awkwardly) & (Virtually) Cast List
Eddie – Danny Jaworski
Wendy – Isabella Del Negro
Charlotte – Addy Chelak
Randy – Benjamin Cook
Laura – Paris Townsell
George – Kevin Caffrey
Luke – Noah Lytle
Roxanne – Ava Pickering
Jack – Sean Machado
Jessica – Christina DeLucca
Male understudies – Joey Kilgannon (Luke & Randy) and Sean Machado (George & Eddie)
Female understudies – Clare McGuinness (Laura & Roxanne) and Katharine Walto (Wendy & Charlotte)