Each week, first-year student Abby Sokol attends multiple online rehearsals with Stage Left, Miami’s student-run theater organization. This semester, the group is performing “American Idiot,” a rock musical featuring the music of Green Day.
After exchanging hellos with the other cast members and student leaders, the group splits up: sopranos and altos in one breakout room, tenors and basses in another. Sokol puts her mic on mute.
Rehearsing over Zoom, the members of Stage Left can’t sing together because of the lag. Instead, they sing on mute with a backing track. Then, one by one, they unmute to sing on their own and get feedback.
When senior instrumental music education major Joseph Ivan applied last spring to direct this semester’s musical, he thought his show would be in person.
One canceled spring semester, a hectic summer and eight million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. later, Stage Left instead put on a virtual performance this semester.
Rather than coming together to perform “American Idiot” straight through, each member of the cast and orchestra individually recorded songs from the show’s soundtrack.
Tech members then edited the videos and sound into six music videos and released them periodically leading up to what Ivan called the “Original Stage Left Cast Recording” of 18 total songs on Nov. 14.
Micki Smolenski, a senior software engineering major and president of Stage Left, said the decision to eliminate a stage performance this year was not an easy one. At first, she and Ivan planned to have a regular production. But as time went on and large gatherings looked less and less feasible, the club opted to move entirely online.
“What it really came down to for us was we wanted everybody to have a chance to be involved no matter what was going on on campus or where people were,” Smolenski said. “So that kind of led to us deciding that the best thing for our organization was to just go fully virtual.”
While it isn’t what Ivan was expecting for his first time directing a Stage Left musical, he said he has enjoyed the experience so far.
“It’s been a lot of fun, actually,” Ivan said. “Everybody will film themselves singing and record themselves in GarageBand simultaneously. We’ll send those [videos] to our video editor for him to put together. My assistant director and I have been throwing [the audio from GarageBand] all onto one track in GarageBand so we can mix it better and get an even better sound quality.”
The final product will be a music video for each song in the musical. Ivan said he and the other producers incorporated choreography, dynamic editing to focus on different cast members for specific scenes and even the included video of orchestra members at times so the performances are more than just a Zoom conference.
Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter
Getting a good sound quality presented a unique challenge this year, explained Cooper Brown, a senior computer science major and treasurer for Stage Left.
Normally, Stage Left requests funding from Associated Student Government (ASG) to hire a company that runs sound and lights for their stage productions. This semester, they had to buy mics instead.
“Because [the show] is virtual and we’re trying to do almost a recording of it,we had to buy mics for all the cast and the pit so that we could get good sound and then kind of combine that into a video for each song,” Brown said.
Another challenge was deciding how to do costumes. Instead of sending out full outfits to every cast member, Stage Left provided a few specific costume pieces to cast members, who are then responsible for finishing each costume.
From costumes to recordings, Smolenski said there is more individual responsibility for cast members than with a normal musical.
“Doing it online and virtual, there’s a lot of personal responsibility that falls on the cast members to turn in videos and submit their singing videos so they can be compiled and edited,” Smolenski said. “Usually, as an actor, you’re used to rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and then just being ready for three shows. Here, you can rehearse as long as you want to, but then you have to sit down and record.”
For Sokol, the adjustment to Zoom rehearsals wasn’t hard, but recording her performances can be a challenge.
Sokol was involved with theater throughout high school. Then, she and the other cast members would rehearse for weeks or months leading up to just a few performances, with no chance to redo a scene if they messed up. Now, she has to work on one song at a time and restart every time she feels like she didn’t do her best.
“It’s different than live theater where you don’t get to choose what you send in,” Sokol said. “There’s pros and cons to each, of course. But I spent like six hours on three videos because it’s so hard to pick and know that you could be doing your best work.”