by Seamus Mohan (’22) | March 29, 2021
Last March, thousands of student actors, stage technicians, and directors collectively mourned the loss of the plays they had worked so hard on, now canceled due to the new COVID-19 pandemic. Across the nation, actors posted memories of their productions online and sang songs they would never get to sing on stage under hashtags like #sunshinesongs. This March, COVID-19 still rages, but the show must go on.
This year, Saint Francis’s student-led musical, Bright Star, was performed entirely online—a school first. I spoke with Jack Whitlow (’21), Valentina Paredes (’21), Haley Scull (’21), Francisco Lucca (’21), and Sarah Vorrath (’22) for insight into how this groundbreaking production was achieved.
With the limitations of COVID, Bright Star obviously couldn’t have been performed with a genuine stage set, but director Jack Whitlow (’21) knew that simple Zoom backgrounds wouldn’t cut it either: “Each actor was given a whitewashed wood backdrop, to give the backgrounds a country aspect—the show takes place in North Carolina. Afterwards, I overlaid every single video that the actor sent in over a large image of some kind to initiate the setting. So maybe it was on a train, or maybe it was in the forest store, or wherever it may be. That was really cool, because oftentimes, on stage, it’s hard to change to a completely different location. You’re still gonna have different aspects of that little location in there from the previous set and I think that was something that was really cool to just get a complete change in setting every single time you would go to a new scene.”
All five agreed that one of the biggest changes to arise from creating a musical in a virtual setting is much more pressure on actors individually. Paredes, the Music Director, shared that one of the biggest challenges for her was that she was never able to hear the entire group singing together until she put the final product together from every actor’s individual recordings.
Scull, the Choreography Director, echoed a similar observation: “We had to put a lot into the hands of the cast to trust that they’re building their own energy, trust that they’re practicing, trust that they’re asking questions when they need to, because a lot of the times, we couldn’t see exactly what they were doing. Once we taught as much as we could we had to trust that the cast would do their part to pick up the slack on the other element. Luckily, it worked out.”
As the male and female leads, respectively, Lucca and Vorrath faced some of the biggest challenges in transitioning to a virtual setting, chief among them was not being able to rehearse and perform alongside their fellow cast members. Both leads felt that the lack of a cohesive cast to learn and perform with puts more pressure on each individual actor to refine their performance to the best it could be. As Lucca said, in a live setting, it was possible to “feel as if everybody is one group together, where if you’re not pulling your weight, it’s fine because other people will do it for you,” but on Zoom, that’s no longer possible.
For Vorrath, one of the biggest changes was not being able to see her character’s love interest when filming her scenes: “When I was filming, there was no one there. So I was in love with a blank space, right? Seeing Francisco’s completely different scene with my scene, and then them coming together was really interesting.”
Putting together Bright Star from scratch in such unusual circumstances was a feat that took dozens of cast and crew members more than six months to finish. When asked for any closing comments, Whitlow said, “I want to speak to the fact that we did this with almost no help from faculty—it was an entire team of students that put this show together and made it what it was, and that makes it really unique. I know St. Francis prides itself on students leading other students and student leadership being a really big thing, and I feel like everybody involved was really able to do that, especially with the actors having to step up individually. We really saw that with everyone and I just think everyone did a good job.”