Jewell Theatre Company adapts to COVID-19 with filmed version of “1984”

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Dr. Chris McCoy makes slight adjustments to set pieces in the Oxbridge Room before filming a scene for “1984.” Emma Mayfield (left), Jaimeson Satterfield and Isaac Chizhik (right) rehearse lines in the background. Photo by Christina Kirk

Among the traditions at William Jewell College that were most affected by COVID-19, the annual theatrical productions put on by Jewell Theatre Company (JTC) were among the hardest hit. JTC typically has a few productions during the academic year, with a play or musical in the fall, a holiday production and senior showcases scattered throughout the year. This fall, JTC is adapting the stage play of “1984” – based on George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel of the same name – to film in order to accommodate for COVID-19 regulations. 

Dr. Chris McCoy, professor of theatre and stage director, is directing this production of “1984.” Though he had originally chosen a play set in the 1890s about women’s entrance into higher education in order to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of women being admitted to Jewell, the inability to put on a live performance due to COVID-19 made him re-strategize.

“Once I realized a live performance would not be possible and considered the world we are living in, dystopian narratives definitely came to mind. While there have been many comparisons of George Orwell’s novel to our contemporary era, I wanted to resist any overt political statement in the final production,” McCoy said. “However, the themes of individual thinking, challenging status quo, and resisting political propaganda are themes that can resonate across time periods and cultures. I think that’s what makes this story such a well-known classic.”

Originally, McCoy had intended to present “1984” as a multimedia presentation in Peters Theatre. However, once filming started and he realized the amount of time filming would take, he, the cast and the crew decided to devote all of their time to filming and editing in order to produce a cohesive film adaptation of the stage play.

At the beginning of the semester, about three weeks were spent rehearsing scenes and making necessary changes to the script. The bulk of filming also lasted about three weeks, with some final scenes being reshot in the first week of November. 

When possible, the cast and crew used the green screen recording studio in the Pryor Learning Commons during their regular rehearsal time of 6-9 p.m. However, several scenes required outdoor shooting, which in turn required daylight. This meant McCoy had to schedule filming around students’ class, work and extracurricular schedules.

Beyond its compatibility with COVID-19 restrictions, McCoy noted that using the medium of film for this production provides a good lesson in learning how to work in front of and behind a camera.

Photo by Christina Kirk

“Within the first week of filming, one of the actors expressed how difficult it was to emote to a camera instead of another actor, which is exactly how it feels when you audition for film or television. We also have learned that it takes about 30 minutes to set up all of the equipment and about 1 minute to actually film a segment. In the few films I have worked on, this is also the case – the talent is usually waiting around while the camera crew run the show.  It’s just an entirely different medium, and I’m so glad our students got to experience that first-hand,” McCoy said. 

Emma Mayfield, junior English major, plays the female lead, Julia, in “1984.” She shared that though she had a difficult time adjusting to filming, the cast and crew’s adaptation to this new medium is a testament to their flexibility.

“Personally I was not the biggest fan of the medium for this show; filming turned out to be such a huge project that we weren’t familiar with,” Mayfield said. “I noticed the biggest differences were how we learned blocking, the lack of meeting in person for a majority of the rehearsal process, and the overall dive into the unknown. We struggled to make it all work at first, but the fact that we pulled it together really shows our theater company’s versatility.”

Isaac Chizhik, senior Oxbridge molecular biology major, plays the show’s antagonist, O’Brien. Reflecting Mayfield’s sentiments about the difficulties of adjusting to acting for the camera and the general uncertainty associated with the project, Chizhik also noted that the advantages of the filmed version included a more relaxed atmosphere, facilitated in part by a flexible rehearsal schedule.

“Ordinarily in a play, you spend weeks rehearsing, and then you have one nightmare week of tech week followed by three, four days of shows. Here, we had a lot less time on rehearsals and those were a lot more flexible. Then, we’ve been filming scenes one at a time, so each one of those filmings is a performance, but it doesn’t feel like it – it just feels like another rehearsal, which takes some of the edge off. It gives us an opportunity to learn our lines in a more relaxed way.

“The flip side of that is uncertainty. We don’t know when or what is going to happen. We’re given a lot less warning when we’re gonna be filming, and oftentimes due to technical difficulties we have to go back and redo stuff,” Chizhik said.

Among the challenges the production has faced so far, one of the most significant has been the time required to film scenes. In his initial timeline, McCoy underestimated the amount of time this part of the process would take, which has delayed the originally planned release of the film. This delay is also due in part to variabilities in light and weather, which required the cast and crew to reshoot or reschedule some scenes. 

As the cast and crew film the final scenes of “1984,” an adjunct guest artist is currently in the editing process. Though McCoy does not yet know the release date for the film, he hopes to have everything wrapped by Thanksgiving break.

Despite some of these unexpected difficulties, Mayfield and Chizhik shared that they admire their colleague’s openness to the new medium.

“I am impressed by how all of the cast and crew have really stepped up. I’ve seen some excellent performances from a lot of the people involved… Everyone has been having a really good time despite all of the setbacks and such. We’re having fun with it, which I think is important,” Chizhik said. 

Outside of this production, Jewell’s theatre department has made several other alterations to accommodate for changes brought on by COVID-19. Last semester, when classes became virtual for the final weeks of the spring 2020 semester, McCoy altered his acting classes to have a focus on acting for the camera rather than live performance. 

During the largely in-person fall 2021 semester, the inability to put on live performances has nevertheless allowed theatre students to engage in new theatrical opportunities. One of these opportunities included assisting with production elements of the opera that was held by Jewell’s Artist Diploma in Voice program in the first week of October.

Christina Kirk

Christina Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief of The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: Institutions & Policy and international relations.

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