If you’ve hosted a Zoom call since March, you know how easy it is to mess something up. You forget you’re muted, or you can’t figure out how to share the screen and sound at the same time, or the connection doesn’t work. However, Class Act, the Champaign-based theatre company that has hosted auditions, rehearsed, performed, and edited three online shows on their YouTube channel, makes this daunting task look easy with superb acting, singing, and editing skills.
When Smile Politely last spoke to Jacki Loewenstein, director of Class Act, back in May, Class Act had just finished their online performance of their virtual show, The Show Must Go Online! Since then, Class Act has released two other 100% virtual shows on their YouTube channel. We followed up with Jacki Loewenstein on the pioneering of Class Act's virtual shows, their new location they plan to use in the future for performances, and their plans focusing more on training and having fun than on performances this fall.
Smile Politely: Hi! Can you catch us up to speed with all of the great virtual theatre work that Class Act has been up to over the last few months?
Jacki Loewenstein: Like most of the world, Class Act has found a virtual home and we’ve explored ways to stay creative and connected through Zoom and video. Since April, Class Act has had 105 students (ages 6 through 16) participate in virtual musicals and summer camps, including: Zoom Theatre Adventure, Zoom Improv, and Make Movies at Home.
SP: You've now had three successful virtual shows put on via YouTube with your students. Can you tell us about the process of creating shows like Super Happy Awesome News! and The Mystery of Custodia?
Loewenstein: These innovative musicals were written with quarantine in mind, so each scene is designed to be filmed individually at home. For The Show Must Go Online, I invited 19 of my most experienced theatre students (ages 9 through 15) to participate. I thought of it as a theatrical “experiment” because I really had no idea how it would turn out.
For rehearsals, I met with each student via Zoom or FaceTime; they’d show me around their house so we could pick the best location for filming and discuss lighting, sound and framing. Often, their parents helped out with the technical side. For my most recent virtual musical, The Mystery of Custodia, the students were all 12 through 14 years old and many were able (and preferred) to film themselves independently!
For all three musicals, I edited together finale songs in which all the kids sing together. This was a huge editing challenge, but it was so heartwarming to hear all of their voices blend together, particularly since we can’t sing together on Zoom (or in person, of course).
SP: You played a role in The Show Must Go Online! What was it like performing in an online show with your students?
Loewenstein: It was fun to play the role of their slightly flighty, technologically-challenged, stressed-out drama teacher. My first instinct was to channel Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek, but my teenage daughters advised me to tone it down and use more of myself in the role (which sounds exactly the type of advice I tend to give my students!). I enjoyed the challenge of playing to the camera, but I’m much more comfortable on stage. For video performances (especially when you’re self-taping), it’s so tempting to do take after take after take, striving for “perfection.” I set a high bar for my students, and an even higher one for myself.
SP: You mentioned the challenges with self-taping and other alternative performance methods that Class Act has been using to create these virtual shows. What do rehearsals for your virtual shows look like?
Loewenstein: For Super Happy Awesome News! and The Mystery of Custodia we rehearsed for three weeks, three times a week for three hours (with a 20-minute screen break). My favorite part was the first week, when everyone was getting familiar with the script and trying lots of different roles. Instead of typical “auditions” for the most recent musical, we had a “talent show” where everyone performed their favorite songs or monologues. This seemed to relieve some of the stress that can accompany auditions. Some of the students made talent show videos because that’s often easier than performing live on Zoom.
By the time I cast the show, everyone was very familiar with all the roles, and they started working on memorization and making rehearsal videos. My wonderfully talented colleague Ryan Pest joined us from San Diego to do some vocal coaching, so we were able to use a breakout room for more efficient rehearsals.
SP: With social distancing measures still in place, do you anticipate having in-person performances this Fall? What will Class Act be doing for performance and training venues now that SoDo Theatre is gone?
Loewenstein: It is so hard to know when it will be safe to gather again for performances, but sometime in the future, Class Act will have a new home on the stage at Countryside School in Champaign. I just joined Countryside’s faculty as the performing arts instructor for grades four through 8, and I look forward to this opportunity.
SP: Finally, what can the C-U community get excited for from Class Act as the fall season approaches?
Loewenstein: Since our summer programs worked out so well, we’re offering musical theatre, acting and film classes inspired by those summer camps. We have both virtual classes and some in-person, masked, distanced classes in an outdoor tent at Countryside School, while weather permits.
Class Act’s Fall Schedule can be found online. Registrations begin on September 12th.
You can watch the virtual shows referenced in this article on Class Act’s YouTube page here.
Photos courtesy of Jacki Loewenstein