By Nikki Suzani
Town Crier Editorial Intern
For drama teacher Nancy Moran’s Acting II class at Los Altos High School, COVID-19 probably could not have come at a worse time. Moran had just assigned her students roles in “Check Please,” the final Broken Box Theatre Company production of the school year.
With more than a dozen seniors in her class, Moran knew how devastated they would be if the show were canceled. So she decided to stage it online.
“It was a natural progression for me because these students, many of them have been with me for two, three or four years, so their culminating work is always the production,” Moran said. “I had 13 seniors this year, who would be losing that final show if we didn’t do it in some manner. As we kept getting the updates saying that we’re not coming back (to school), I just quickly shifted gears.”
“Check Please” turned out to be an almost perfect production for an online format, according to Moran. The play, which follows main characters simply named Guy and Girl as they go through a mess of blind dates, is designed to have only two to four characters in a scene. Actors were able to replicate that atmosphere using face cameras and the different views on Zoom. Further, the modern-day setting of the show meant that it was a little easier for them to figure out props and costumes at home.
“They made their own props and menus, and worked with the costume designers to find things at home that would fit,” Moran said. “Luckily, it was just all in the cards that this show worked for this format, and they really wanted to try it because they were excited about the show and it was the last hurrah for the seniors.”
With assistant costume designer Ella Freda-Eskenazi volunteering to do the editing with software she’d never used before, Adobe Premiere Pro, and working with the record function on Zoom, the class made it happen.
The process seemed simple enough. First, actors used an online spreadsheet to post availability and schedule times to work with their scene partners. They hopped on a Zoom call, recorded the video and audio, and sent the recording to Freda-Eskenazi. She used editing software to add the sound effects and music, cropped the Zoom video and merged the scenes.
However, there were a few technical issues due to Wi-Fi connections.
“A lot of the time, just because it was over Wi-Fi – to no fault of the students or the software – things would glitch once in a while or their audio would cut out so I’d have to ask them to rerecord it,” Freda-Eskenazi said. “We had a situation where one of the scenes we did a voiceover, since Serena (Gaylord, who stars as Girl) had no reason to have to act the scene out again. It actually ended up working very well.”
Gaylord said one of the biggest challenges of the production was getting accustomed to the focus on facial expressions rather than physical movements.
“On stage, you can read body language, and you can read what they’re doing with their hands and the way they’re standing,” she said. “Now, it’s been very reliant on facial expressions. It’s a fun thing to learn, but it’s difficult to really convey the essence of the scene without the in-person acting.”
To Moran, dealing with that challenge is part of the fun of staging the show virtually.
“I think there is so much to learn about developing character for close-up, camera-type action,” she said. “It’s a different type of acting, really focusing on facial expression and tone of voice and reaction rather than physical movement. It’s definitely worth trying.”
Prerecorded productions also gave the actors more room for mistakes.
“If you make a mistake, it’s easier to just start over or cut it out,” Freda-Eskenazi said. “I think that may be an advantage to film over theater, the fact that there is always more than one take.”
Still, the lack of interaction, especially off-stage, was hard for the students: friends who had grown closer and closer over the year.
“It’s really sad that we can’t all see each other because we’re just a random group of a bunch of people from different parts of campus and friend groups and grades, but we all get along so well over our shared love of acting,” Gaylord said. “They’re just all really great people.”
Ultimately, Freda-Eskenazi is proud of how far they’ve come and hopes people will view the show.
“The actors have really done amazing; they’ve brought the same enthusiasm and concentration that they would to a stage production,” she said. “I think as a whole the entire class really adjusted nicely. With the given situation, everyone handled it really well.”
For a link to view the play, visit facebook.com and search “Broken Box Theatre Company.”