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Greek Gods Under Quarantine

Remote learning creates new opportunity for drama teacher and students to connect with playwright
The Sacred Heart Middle School play, Greek Gods Under Quarantine, opens Friday, October 23, as a live Zoom production with three shows. The efforts to get the “video-conference comedy” underway began over summer, and the road to opening night has resulted in “never before seen” opportunities, says middle school drama director Rachel Prouty.
 
While prepping for the 2020-21 school year’s drama productions and lesson plans, Prouty was also keeping tabs on the playwright community and publishing houses, which were scrambling to adapt productions to fit the new virtual format. About that time, a new play came on the scene that caught Prouty’s eye.
 
The parody-style show centered around the panoply of Greek gods, who are now appropriately living in quarantine. This was the perfect production for this age group, Prouty realized.

“In their curriculum, our sixth graders study Greek mythology in English, history, and drama,” she said. “As our seventh and eighth graders experienced that curriculum too, really [this opportunity] has all those lovely ties.”
 
Since the play was “hot off the press,” Prouty thought, why not reach out to the playwright? She did, and while chatting about the storyline with the play’s author Dean O’Carroll, Prouty offered one suggestion that not only resonated with him, but ultimately led to an even newer script for the production.
 
“I noted the Dionysus character was in the high school version, focusing on his love of wine, but had been entirely written out of the middle school version,” Prouty recalls. “I said ‘Dionysus is also the God of theater, so what do you think about [restoring his character to the play] and instead of the wine part, making his spin be the theater part—like jazz hands and over-the-top musical theater?’” O’Carroll was intrigued.
 
Over the course of the weekend, he emailed Prouty back, “How about this?” Attached was a new version of the middle school play, with Dionysus written back in.
 
“It’s now one of my favorite scenes in the show,” said Prouty. “As crazy and frustrating as it has been trying to deal with everything being online, it has created some incredible new opportunities. I was able to have a back-and-forth with the playwright and influence a scene that got written into the play, which is phenomenal—when else am I going to be able to say that?”
 
Another rare opportunity arose soon after—O’Carroll agreed to Zoom into one of the cast’s rehearsals. Following, each of the 16 cast members and six crew members were able to directly ask O’Carroll a question about the play, their characters, and the playwriting and publishing process in general. It was an exciting experience for the students to hear from and connect with the show’s actual author, who praised the cast for their hard work and humor.
 
As with all SHS productions, a student crew is working to ensure the live performances will be a success. A stage manager will be finessing behind-the-scenes work on Zoom, a sound crew operator will be in charge of the sounds the audience hears, a student hair and makeup intern is helping with those designs and creating tutorial videos that cast members can follow at home. Another student is aiding production assistant Betsy Burdick with publicity, and two students worked with Fred Eiras, technical director of performing arts, to design physical set backdrops that each actor will have as a virtual background.

The virtual format allowed for more collaboration between cast and crew, says eighth grader Lucy Newton (SHP '25), who plays two roles, Hephaestus and Arachne. "The tech crew, costume designers, and hair and makeup designers really let us be involved in designing and brainstorming our characters' looks, background, and audio choices," said Newton.

“Even though we can't be in person to put everything together, it surprised me how smooth everything looked when it all came together and I was able to see everyone else performing,” she added.
 
With fresh opportunities also came unforeseen challenges. “One of the biggest difficulties is getting the actors in the correct camera frame each time, so we’re talking about making sure your head is in the top third of the screen, and when you’re leaning into the audience, that you lean into the camera and not simply your screen. We’re also working on using gestures and props within frame, and lighting from the front with rim lights,” said Prouty.
 
It was important to Prouty that the play be live, rather than pre-recorded and edited. “There is something special about a live performance, about the energy, the anxieties, and also the feeling of accomplishment once it’s done—I didn’t want to lose that wonderful experience for the students,” she said.
 
The actor portraying Zeus, seventh grader Charles Van Dyke (SHP ’26), says he has been enjoying the whole experience, though it is a departure from what he’s used to. A “seasoned” student performer, Van Dyke has been in a number of SHS productions onstage in past.
 
“Even though it’s not ideal, I love this online format,” said Van Dyke. “Since there isn’t a lot of stage direction to follow, we can really play around with our body movement and improv, which [has been really fun].”
 
Since March and moving to distance learning, Prouty said that the online community of drama teachers has been invaluable—they can swap ideas, lesson plans, connect with playwrights, and learn when productions are available as virtual versions. Through that forum, Prouty was able to choose not only this fall’s production, but the spring semester’s as well. And as the five weeks of rehearsals for Greek Gods Under Quarantine progressed, Prouty connected with a friend who teaches drama at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, which just pulled off a successful live Zoom show. “I said, ‘Give me your secrets!’” Prouty laughed. “Talking with other theater professionals and finding out what they’re doing has been creative inspiration for what we can do here at Sacred Heart,” said Prouty.
 
Overall, she’s seeing “smiles, comradery, laughter, and relationships grow—that’s still a wonderful piece of the pie.”
 
Added Van Dyke, “the cast has really pulled together, and even though we aren’t doing things normally, everyone is putting the same amount of energy into it. [As a result,] we have a really great show!”
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Founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, SHS is a Catholic, independent, co-ed day school for students in preschool through grade 12