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Penn State's No Refund Theatre puts on live performance with COVID-19 precautions

Jade Campos

The pandemic stopped many live theater performances from taking the stage over the past year. But Penn State’s “No Refund Theatre” was adamant that the show must go on. The group spent the spring semester bringing a live show to life, while taking precautions to stay safe from COVID-19. 

No Refund Theatre started rehearsals over Zoom in January for the play “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” At the time, the two-person cast mostly just practiced running lines with the director and crew.

Actor Jacob Malizio said making natural connections with his stage partner was difficult virtually. Zoom can be awkward for serious situations like an emotional scene. 

“When you're acting in a scene with someone, especially if it's a really intense or intimate scene, you don't get to connect with your scene partner over the computer screen in the same way that you would if they're standing right in front of you," Malizio said.

Actor Megan Swift said making connections wasn't the only difficult part about the remote start. She says she struggled to understand what the play would even look like without a real stage.

“Over Zoom it was hard to picture where everything would be like on the stage — like there's a bed over here, a chair over here, but then they switch to the next scene and you can't picture that if you only have a little space in your room to rehearse," she said.

But Swift said virtual rehearsals did have some positives. She has a busy schedule with classes and other activities, so Swift says Zoom made it possible for her to be a part of a play.

The cast and crew eventually started phasing in in-person rehearsals. They wore masks and social distanced when together. They also got tested before meeting up in person to start weekly practices.

Credit Jade Campos / WPSU

They hoped to end the semester with a live performance in Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium. 

It depended on what phase of COVID precautions Penn State would be in at the time. So, the cast and crew decided to do a filmed recording of the play, too.

Rehearsals and filming happened outdoors across campus and State College. Director Anna Garmen also used her apartment for filming indoor scenes. Garmen said everyone was tested before filming started.

“We keep socially distanced as much as we can, and masks for as much as we can. I did a bunch of stuff with a health agreement to make sure everybody got tested before all of the filming weekends," Garmen said.

Malizio said connecting with castmates and the crew is one of the most important parts of a show. The limited time to get to know each other this year was also something that set the play apart from others he’d been a part of.

“It’s not just the show — it's the before and the after and the bonding with your cast there," Malizio said. I'm so grateful for the time I've had with my cast but it would be so much different if things were the way they used to be.”

The next step was getting the green light to practice inside some classrooms on campus. Garmen said they were allowed to rehearse in the Willard Building once Penn State eased some of its COVID precautions. That was only a few weeks before the final show.

The cast and crew continued to mask up and social distance during their on-campus rehearsals.

Credit Jade Campos / WPSU

The cast got to spend only a few days practicing in Schwab before the performance. Swift said their time onstage was limited to prevent lingering air particles.

During the performance, the two actors wore masks on stage and social distanced. The crew adjusted the stage lighting to make it look like they were touching using their shadows.

“They're going to dim the lights and then I'll be like, in front of him on the stage and then we'll still reach out and it'll look like we're touching hands," Swift said.

The live performance was set for April 24. The cast waited for Penn State to enter into its next COVID phase to let audience members into Schwab. But it never came.  

A small, spread out audience of crew members watched the show live in Schwab. But most of the audience had to watch on their computers, through a livestream on No Refund Theatre’s YouTube page. While it wasn’t what was originally planned, Garmen said she was still happy to see the play come to life in Schwab.

“Finding out that we would be the only one that would be livestreamed from Schwab is just beyond my wildest expectations and dreams. It's something we've been waiting so long for," she said.

Credit Jade Campos / WPSU

Malizio believes rising vaccination rates make the future look promising for live theater.

“It finally, for the first time in like over a year now, it feels like there's light at the end of the tunnel," Malizio said.

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