Love of the Arts: Theater Prepares to Return to the Stage

Updated: Apr 17

Warm lights start to flood the stage as the stage manager Megan Miranda begins to tinker with the control booth near the door in ODU’s University Theater. She adjusts a camera set up in the middle of the theater, manipulating it to get an even view of the stage as its cord drapes awkwardly over unoccupied seats. Some are marked with blue tape, little blue tabs poking out stiffly as “sit here” stickers are firmly stuck on their wood backs. Actors tumble into the space as the clock ticks closer to seven - rehearsal time - and drop their stuff in separate corners of the auditorium. Ricardo Melendez, the choreographer for the musical they’re all here for, “Working,” helps one of the actors to hang plastic partitions on stage, to help protect the actors.

“I love how everyone is reacting to a piece of plastic like a nuclear caveman,” jokes Jim Lyden, the technical director, when someone bumps into one.

“Working” will dive into the stories of 26 essential workers, adapted from the 1974 book by Studs Terkel. The final production won’t be here, in the University Theater, but instead at Brock Commons, and will be both live and in person, on April 15-18.

The director, Katherine Hammon, has said that the cast is taking all precautions necessary to protect everyone involved, as the performance will allow the audience to either sit distanced or attend in their cars in a drive-in format. Choosing Brock Commons allows the theater department to distance the event, Hammon explained. Since the performance will be outside with a small cast, there can be all the aspects of a musical in a communal yet distanced manner.

Ricardo Melendez, choreographer of ODU's production of "Working," breaks down how he wants everyone positioned on the stage. Photography by Nicholas Clark.

“We’ve carefully been watching the protocols for performance suggested by Actors’ Equity Union, as well as the United States Institute of Theatre Technology to understand the best way to safely support our amazing students - giving them the ability to have a performance and design opportunities,” Hammon said. “While a Zoom performance was an option, it is nothing like attending an event.”

Nearby the stage, two women sit together on the seats at the front of the theater. They’re a mother-daughter pair - the reason they’re allowed to sit together, they explain. They both play several roles; “Working” has 13 cast members and no main characters. Instead, everyone plays a few different essential workers, all equally important.

Laura Bjork is a recent alumna who graduated in the spring of 2020 and Holly-Grace Bjork, her daughter, is a freshman here at ODU.

Like many of the actors here, they both live and breathe theater.

“I grew up doing theater and stuff because she used to be the drama teacher at my school,” Holly-Grace explained. “I just kind of grew up in that environment and always loved it and took any chance I could to take any kind of drama class or theater or play.”

“As a kid, I was really shy but I was really really good at speaking,” explained Laura, “and I discovered that when I'm on stage I can be anybody. I can do anything I want to. There are no rules. And I could really be the creative person that my shy little self [was] too shy to do in front of people; on the stage I could do anything. And so everything about theatre, I absolutely love. I just love it.”

Burning determination floods the room as the rehearsal begins and everyone clambers onto the stage. They’re halfway through rehearsals, having begun learning the songs over Zoom weeks ago, and then finally transitioned to in-person practices.

“It's been really hard because theatre is used to being, you know, very close-knit, very touchy-feely,” Laura said. “When we actually stood on the stage, it had been a year. That was early last year, that we never got to go on stage, [when] they canceled the show. And that's really been difficult.

The actors get comfortable on stage as they repeat the song “Something to Point To” and piece together the choreography. In the back of the theater, things look slightly different than years past. A camera set up in the middle of the empty seats broadcasts footage of the stage to Washington D.C., where Larry Lewis, one of the actors and the assistant director for the production, is Zooming into the rehearsal. He missed this practice because he is working with the Kennedy Center in D.C. on a project that focuses on diversity and inclusion.

“We are devising theatre and discussing ways in which theatre needs to evolve, and what ways we can work to evolve it when it is fully back after the pandemic,” he explains via the chat function.

Lewis had been directing a self-written musical when the pandemic happened and the university closed.

“Throughout the next few months, I had doubts about continuing in theatre, but then I began to experiment with ways I could do theatre from home. With these ideas, I was able to co-produce a series of play readings on Zoom with ODU Theatre. It was all about finding a way to adapt!”

His musical, which is called “Before This Time” is set in 1915 during the creation period of Broadway and Vaudeville.

“I was interested in creating a classical comedy musical, but including modern themes such as feminism and inclusion,” Lewis said. “Many of the musicals at that time didn't feature people of color and so I wanted to write something in response to that, so I made sure the cast was

comprised of people with different ethnic backgrounds and orientations and cultures.”

“I've recently started to get into film work, which is something I would love to pursue. I'm focusing more on writing and directing, but acting will always be my first love. I hope to become a film director, and adapt Broadway musicals as well as original musicals, to film.”

For several of the actors, their time off the stage has just fueled their commitment to their craft and their desire to perform.

Tré Porchia is a sophomore at ODU, and although this is his first production with the theater department, he has been doing theater since he was in fifth grade.

“I believe that even though the pandemic happened, I saw a lot of stuff - mostly through social media - about how art was thriving. Like, they found creative ways to continue with it safely, and a lot of stuff has transpired because of the pandemic. Art is something that can't die no matter what is thrown at it. There's always something creative happening, there is always something new being created, no matter what the circumstances. So I’m just like, that's very inspiring, and I have to keep going with this no matter what.”

Porchia is an essential worker and has been one since before COVID began to shut things down last year. He does delivery driving as an assistant manager at Dominos, and notes that one of the positions he plays in “Working” is a delivery driver.

Jim Lyden practices his lines as they run through the song "Something to Point To." Photography by Nicholas Clark.

“The production really highlights that no matter what job you have, you might think your job is small, you might think that it doesn't matter, but it matters to somebody. It could impact somebody's life in a way that you don't even know," Porchia said. "Whether you know this person or they don't know this person, it's super important no matter what you're doing, as long as you like what you're doing, as long as you believe that you're making a difference, it is important.”

“Working” was written in 1974 as a book, then turned into a musical. In 2012 it was revised and new songs were added. Hammon chose the musical because she thought it spoke to where theater is now.

“I’ve seen a lot of theater, and a lot of Zoom theater, and I was kind of tired of talking about the pandemic, and I really wanted to talk about the people who have been making everything go. Which I think is really upl

ifting. Even though their stories are hard in “Working”, you know, some of them have really hard tales that they tell us, but that's kind of what our life is, and it's the people that are keeping the world moving. I just thought that doing a celebration of working, of the essential worker, was really important,” Hammon said.

“It's so weird how important it is,” said Porchia.”It's really interesting to hear the different stories [in “Working”] and being like, ‘Oh yeah, I have a friend that does this,’ and then we talked about what it's like working in the

pandemic, like as a social worker. And it's like, oh wait, this is like this is currently happening right now.”

"Working" actors Karen Laws, Tré Porchia, Jim Lyden, and Matoawka Donovan (left to right), go over the script together during rehearsal. Photography by Nicholas Clark.

Even though theater has changed drastically from where it was a year ago, the actors working on this production are extremely committed, remembering the devastation that having to cancel last spring’s performances brought.

“When we sing, we’re singing with our masks on,” said Laura Bjork. “That's really difficult, especially for people who like to be really expressive. And do I see this going away in the next few years? Maybe slowly but not, not like that,” she snaps her fingers, “and it's going to take people time to get used to that new norm. It’s difficult. It’s been very difficult, I think. But I love it.”