The Last Theatre: 2019/2020
01 July, 2020 by Kobina Hagan | 0 comments
A reflective paper by the Directing majors of the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana, Legon, on how the CODVID-19 affected their projects.
THE LAST THEATRE: 2019/2020: Sarah Dorgbadzi (PhD), Kobina Hagan, Kelvin Swanzy Menlah and Elorm Nudanu.
The Theatre Arts Department of the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana, Legon offers a number of areas of specialization in the theatre making process; it being collaborative. One of these courses is play Directing, This course is studied, at the undergraduate level, over a period of three semesters following an introduction to all the majoring areas in a workshop situation.
The first of the three semesters is in Level 300. Here, we student directors are exposed to fundamental theoretical underpinnings of the art and we are guided to direct a scene. The second and third semesters occur in the final year, Level 400, where we are allowed a free hand to explore our talent by directing a one-act or a thirty-minute performance, and then in the final semester of the final year, we are required to direct a full length play or a devised performance with a duration of about one and a half hours. We were eager to show off our accumulated knowledge, craft, and flair in directing our final projects.
In the 2019/2020 academic year, we, three enthusiastic student artists, signed up as Directing Majors. We see the art of play directing as a concept of bringing individuals of different backgrounds with distinct ideologies and personalities to tell a story by presenting or representing a said reality. It is this task of constituting/reconstituting a slice of society’s reality that provokes and also explains society’s need for thinking artists. As directing students, the first thing our lecturer, named above, made us understand was that, “it is the thinking that goes into a work that makes it art; not the ability to do”. Thus, as much as the doing is important, as theatre artists, we are tasked to think through and about our practice. It is perhaps this kind of thinking that has preserved the theatre.
Per the demands of the course, as indicated earlier, we directing students were each required to direct a full-length performance as our final project. We selected our pieces as follows;
Kobina Hagan chose Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horseman, Swanzy Menlah selected Martin Owusu’s The Story Ananse Told, and Elorm Nudanu worked on Squatters, a devised piece based on Faceless, a novel by Amma Darko. The Story Ananse Told was scheduled to be staged on the 19th to 22nd of March, followed a fortnight later; 9th to 11th of April by Death and Kings Horseman and the final production, Squatters, on 16th to 19th of April 2020.
We began the production processes with great enthusiasm. We were poised to outdoor our artistic visions of our world and contribute to the on-going quest for a form that can be recognized as Ghanaian Theatre. The processes started with audition notices for the various plays as; The Story Ananse Told 17th February, Death and the Kings Horseman 19th February and Squatters 24th February, 2020. The production designs were crafted with elaborate performance aesthetics of our pieces, to be housed at the ET Sutherland Drama Studio stage, in front of a live audience. The Story Ananse told borrowed from the concept of Ghanaian Storytelling, creatively representing the playful nature of actors performing as if they are engaged in telling Anansesem (Ananse stories), Death and the kings Horseman employed the total theatre aesthetics which is an organic blend of singing, dancing and enactment. Squatters sought to capture and express a symbolic presentation of social realities and existing challenges of the homeless community in Ghana through an approach the director called frame by frame movement.
We three directing majors were poised, and fired up with passion, among other things, to break new grounds and broaden the horizon of directing in the School of Performing Arts. Rehearsals began fruitfully and the production teams were excited about the various plays they were involved in. Every single rehearsal had its own special kind of energy and zeal inspired by the artistic vision of each student director. New ideas were developed and tested during all these rehearsals. The entire cast and crew in these productions collaborated with each other just as beautifully as the directors were supportive of each other’s work. The lighting team started working on their lighting designs and plots, costume designers were experimenting with different costume choices and styles, while our set designers were also tirelessly working to provide a suitable set to complement our efforts. The technical team’s designs were so promising. According to our lecturer, performances run on the energy of the director so we were careful to keep our casts and crew inspired to create so that our productions we create will have a signature; a style and look that allows its live audiences to engage in the represented reality.
In the second week of March, The Story Ananse Told was far advanced, and in its final stages of rehearsals; Death and the Kings Horseman was in its final stages of blocking, with actors becoming conversant with their lines and more familiar with their characters; and Squatters was also in its beginning stages of blocking and Elorm was testing his directing and performance concepts. Then the Corona virus hit the country. The University of Ghana recorded its first case, which forced the University to close down, halting all three productions! Indeed, The Story Ananse Told was four days away from opening night!
In Ghana, the initial phase of the pandemic was full of uncertainty, paranoia and fear. Everybody thought they had contracted the virus and those who did not think so were afraid of getting infected. As artists our basic instinct for survival overrode our focus on artistic or intellectual work. All we cared about was surviving the pandemic. At the same time, in some corners of our minds, we were hoping and thinking that the pandemic was one of the things that come with a full blow but dies off after a week or two so we maintained virtual contact with our cast and crew. We continued to run line rehearsals.
After two weeks, the heat of the pandemic was still on and so was our rationalization and our hope as budding dramatists. We continued to engage our cast and crew on social media platforms. But not all of them were present for various reasons. We were all looking for a way to continue the production process, to ensure that we would still have a performance should the pandemic die down, and the university reopen. The idea of staging a virtual theatre performance also started becoming a subject for deliberation. But how was that going to happen under a lockdown in an era of social distancing?
As theatre artists, we were enthralled by the virtual idea but then any submission on how to go about it spun off the path of theatre into a motion picture production. So the question was, how do we stage a virtual theatre performance in front of a live audience without pulling away from the aesthetics of theatre into a different genre of art?
By this time, about four weeks after the closure of the University, the enthusiasm of our cast and crew had waned. It was becoming difficult to sustain their interest in a theatre production at a time that everyone was plunged into a state of panic as news of the spread and death tolls from around the globe came in. Online rehearsal became less and less effective. The reality of the situation began to sink in. The cost of data begun to weigh down on our teams and we ourselves were not exempt. Then how can we become innovative when all sides of the production process and the production teams were beginning to cave in?
Online rehearsals halted and we went back to our blueprints; the stage play and the production design, restructuring the aesthetics and ideas to suit the current situation which has assumed a name ‘new normal’. The number of cast and crew was a factor to consider because of an imposition of a ban on gatherings of more than twenty-five people in a confined space. Our cast and crew numbers exceeded the limit by far. There were other obstacles on our way to becoming performance directors. First of all, our casts were also university students who live in different parts of the country. Getting them all to come to Accra, with restrictions on movement, was an issue. Secondly, in the face of a drastic and sudden change in social life and behavior, as individual Directing students, we were second guessing our subject matters. Would our chosen plays be of interest to society in the given circumstances? The pandemic posed issues that were significant and relevant to the entire community, the relevance of our subject matter in these trying times was clearly a matter to consider. Thirdly, our casts and crew were participating in the productions for credit hours and grades. The lecturer handling the Production Participation designed an alternative way of assessing the students participating in our production so their interest, and zeal reduced even further. We lost about eighty percent of our cast and crew. It was after this set back that the government announced that the final year students could return to school to complete their academic year.
Although we received this news with excitement, the challenge still remained that our casts and crew who were not final year students would not be available.
Our directing lecturer in collaboration with the acting lecture devised a way to merge the two classes so that we the directing students could work with the acting students. There are only six actors in the acting class. This presented a new challenge; how to tell our stories using these six actors instead of twenty-four for Swanzy’s, twenty-eight for Kobina’s, and thirty-four in Elorm’s project. We were given a maximum of ten minutes each. The implication is that we re-think our productions and compress the full length piece into a ten-minute performance. We, each, considered the idea of selecting a scene or an act that falls within that duration. Naturally, we made adaptations and alterations of the original production design to suit the current situation. The pieces are now going to be presented as play readings fused into a seamless blend of monologues and poetry presentations by the final year acting class. This is scheduled to be a one night performance since, for obvious reasons we were not going to have the luxury of several performances. We jumped at this opportunity because the show must go on!
To tell a story within a short period of time requires particular attention to detail and the creation of every single picture with an outstanding eloquence that would captivate anyone. In response to the quest to select a scene or an act from our various pieces, based on critical thinking and a reconsideration of our artistic thought, we created pieces from various scenes that best communicated our intent in a way that best suits the social condition and mind sets of today. The objective was to de-stress our audience and viewers, as the case may be.
The story Ananse Told sought to bring Ghanaian storytelling form into the theatrical space as mentioned earlier, but that idea was no longer viable for obvious reasons. In this new performance concept, we were compelled to consider aesthetic cannons that can make the play reading as engaging as can be. The fact that Actors will have scripts in hand as they performed became an important factor, so that initiative, became an integral part of the performance. The mandatory wearing of masks was also incorporated into the creation of monsters in this piece. We did all these with a keen eye on keeping reality intact without destroying the world of the play.
The rehearsal for the new collaborative piece dubbed The Last Theatre 2019/2020 begun earnestly and the performance was scheduled to be opened on the 17th of July 2020. All Covid-19 protocols and measures were being observed during this period. With an ease in the ban on public gathering, the intention of the Acting and Directing lecturers and supervisors of this project was that the venue, the ET Sutherland Drama Studio, an-open air theatre space, instead of about four hundred, would seat only a hundred audience members, observing the two meters apart protocol. Lododo Art, a non-profit foundation also promised to support our efforts by streaming the performance live on its social media platforms to reach a virtual audience. With all the restrictions and measures put in place, the original metamorphosed into a new form of theatre that by all standards was going to be the last theatre piece of the 2019/2020 academic year- hence the title.
While all these preparations were going on with high hopes and expectations of the turnout in terms of attendance and theatricality, we suffered another shocking blow! On the 14th July, we were at our usual rehearsal venue when information reached us that the facility was no longer going to be available to us; neither for rehearsal nor for performance because of the fear of COVID 19. We quickly conditioned our thoughts to put-up the show on a quadrangle outside where we spent the rest of the afternoon reworking to suit our new venue. On the 15th of July, our directing lecturer called the production team (Acting and Directing classes now working together) for a meeting. She started by telling us that as artists, any time we encounter an obstacle we should see it as an opportunity to get better because nothing can oppress a creative mind. She then informed us that although she had been written to concerning our project, the departmental head had come to a decision to cancel our projects completely, citing COVID 19, again, as the reason. Thankfully, the Acting students were just as committed as we were to make our final projects, The Last Theatre 2019/2020 successful. Our motto in theatre practice, “the show must go on” needed to be realized. We quickly pulled our resources together and with the help and guidance of our supervisors, and Lododo Art Foundation, we approached Vivie’s Dance factory a training space within a community near the university to exhibit our performance. This is not a conventional performance space but at this short notice was graciously adapted to accommodate our performance and also provided technical support.
The Last Theatre 2019/2020 is now a success story. We the students are grateful to each other, collectively we appreciate our lecturers for their persistence and exemplary artistry. In addition to our directing skills, one important lesson we have learnt in all these is to creatively leap over our hurdles and rise to attain the best. The show must go on.