Making Up for Lost Time: New Play Development in Academia Post COVID 19

by Jackie Rosenfeld and Cade M.Sikora
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

There is a tremendous amount of grief in the post-COVID world of post-secondary educational theatre regarding missed opportunities and lost time. When we, Professors Jackie Rosenfeld (Playwriting and Pedagogy) and Cade M. Sikora (Scenic Design and Technical Direction), joined the Department of Theatre at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the Fall of 2021 we developed a new way for our students to engage in theatre that is epic, flexible, and opens up untold potential to connect to the outside world apart from their scheduled season of shows and regular coursework. The opportunity: workshopping and producing a radio play of Flying in the Face of God [i], a new work and docu-dramatization set aboard the famous Titanic, seemingly ending with the destruction of the ship in real-time. The outcomes: connection to each other, excitement about the production of new works, the creation of an entire extracurricular program called the New Play Development Initiative, and enhancement to the curriculums in our department.

***

Sikora:

This project did not start as a vehicle for any academic activity or as a radio play. Prior to coming to Texas, I was developing a docu-dramatization of the Titanic disaster as part of my own personal portfolio. The story I wanted to tell is huge. The historical event and the consequences thereof are of interest to me, and I knew early on that I was responding to the historic event as well as pop culture’s depictions of the event. To that end, please note two things about the work:

  • The characters depicted are historical figures.
  • The events depicted are taken from biographic information, survivors’ accounts, implied in survivors’ accounts, or at the very least are possible given the information available.

This research-oriented approach to the writing geared the project to an academic environment before that was ever a consideration.

Rosenfeld:

Before the Fall Semester officially began, Sikora asked if I would be willing to read a draft of a play he was working on; I was. Upon finishing the immense script and sharing my initial response, I asked if I could serve as the dramaturg for this new work. We spent the semester trading drafts and feedback. Sikora was initially resistant to hearing a read-through until he finished the second draft.

One afternoon in the last week of the semester, however, I was involved in a meeting with a number of students including two we thought would be particularly strong in some of the roles. When Sikora agreed, I very quickly asked the young men if they were available to read a couple of pages from a new script. Within twenty minutes, a short scene from Flying in the Face of God was read aloud for the first time.

Sikora:

After this first two-page read-through, I became interested in hearing more of the script. But it was huge and incomplete. I broke the play down into chunks. Instead of the mammoth text, the read-through script was whittled down to tell one of its many plotlines. This allowed us to get through a complete story in a reasonable amount of time, gave the performers an opportunity to see the trajectory of the piece, and allowed me as the playwright an opportunity to really focus on one plot at a time.

Rosenfeld:

The casting of the play needed to be as simple as possible. There are over 183 speaking roles in the play with many of them being white men middle-aged and older from the United States and abroad. We cast without regard to race, age, or ethnicity, allowing us to engage with a broader range of students. While we assured all the students that accents would not be required, many took it upon themselves to learn the basics of various European dialects. To allow students the opportunity to perform and the playwright to listen, we decided I would read the stage directions.

Sikora:

At the read-through, students were provided with a very brief biography of the characters they were reading for, and we jumped into the text. They understood that they were not reading the full text but were reading one full story from within the text. In the talkback, the students expressed interest in knowing more. Reading 1/12 of the play and only seeing glimpses of the other 11/12 had whetted their appetites.

Rosenfeld:

We also created a response form with specific questions for the readers to reflect on in the days after the reading. This was useful for Sikora; it was even more useful for the students. This opportunity to give feedback allowed them to think critically about a work in progress and to begin to understand the value of both their ideas and their participation.

Sikora:

To continue this process, I had to keep writing the play. By the end of the semester, we held six read-throughs. On any given night, we read one to three new plotlines, each time understanding the story better than the time before.

Rosenfeld:

Throughout the readings I continued to do dramaturgical work. Relaying all this information to the students as we progressed made it all the more exciting. Both Sikora and I were able to use all our research as teaching opportunities about primary resources and secondary resources.

Sikora:

There was interest from the student participants in creating some form of production. The solution we landed on was to produce a recording of a staged reading. By using all the tools we had amassed and skills we had honed over the semester of small readings, we could create one reading of the full text. This initiative spoke to a number of wants and needs which were floating around our department: our collective desire to hear what this script sounded like end-to-end, an opportunity to prototype Rosenfeld’s idea for a new play development program, and to provide a sense of closure to what had become a much bigger project than was originally imagined.

To prepare for this reading, I combed the script to get a sense of just which stage directions needed to be recorded for a radio play adaptation to be successful. Owing to the precise nature of the storytelling and the huge importance on historicity, certain sections of the original text include absolute paragraphs of stage directions. As the playwright, and knowing that I would be doing the post-production, I attempted to vet out some of these fuller sections.

This was also when casting choices were made. Essentially, we expanded on the model we used for the initial read-throughs: Each actor was cast in a small number of lead roles, a comparable number of supporting roles from other plotlines within the story, and any number of tertiary roles with the intention of providing our students with varieties of characters which they could perform and to minimize situations where actors spoke to themselves as different characters. There are still scenes where an actor as a lead character speaks to or around themselves as a secondary or tertiary character, but they were carefully chosen in such a way that the audience would not get confused.

Over Labor Day Weekend, 2022, we recorded a final read-through of the text. As the concept of time plays an important role in the script, so too did it play for us as we had no more than three workdays to wade through over 500-pages of text. The first day was largely spent disseminating information about the event, characters, and text so that everyone was on the same page with the production. Days two and three were devoted to reading and recording. We do not have a sound studio capable of recording over a dozen people individually and that was far beyond our intended scope, anyway. We set up an impromptu recording studio on one of our performance spaces, complete with enough microphones that we could pair cast members off to share, a digital soundboard to record, and all of the masking flown in to create as much soundproofing as we could muster.

Throughout the recording itself, I took notes in my script of lines or sections which I knew would need to be re-recorded, notes on timing, notes from the sound board operator, and notes on and anything else which I thought would help me in the editing process later. By the numbers, the weekend included: thirteen student performers reading for over 180 characters; one Student Sound Technician; one Prologue, twenty-four scenes, and one Epilogue, spread over 523 pages of dialogue and action; and a 400-slide dramaturgical presentation.

Rosenfeld:

In addition to the dramaturgical presentation, we spent a bit of time on the first day discussing mic technique. Having spent some time in the audiobook industry, I was able to give basic instructions and tips on placement and pronunciation. These new skills led to four of these students now working as professional voice actors in a curriculum video series with a major university.

It became obvious early in the process that recording stage directions as planned proved to be a logistical impossibility. We were already weary of running out of time and while the information was important to understanding the action for the audience it had the contrary effect of slowing down the pacing and energy for the actors. We made the decision to record the stage directions at a later date. Instead Sikora gave important details to the cast as needed to interpret the scenes.

This was fortuitous to have the experience later of reading through the play using only the stage directions. It assisted Sikora in fine-tuning some areas as well as understanding his voice as a playwright—particularly toward the end when the stage directions alone had me in tears. As the dramaturg it confirmed for me that the stage directions play a vital role in this play in communicating not just the actions of the play but also the tone, mood, and subtext. Reading a script in this way is an exercise I will use going forward with all of my own plays as well as an exercise in playwriting courses and with new works I dramaturg.

The entirety of the Epilogue needed to be recorded after the fact as well. As we neared the end of the play we were more quickly approaching the end of our recording schedule. Adding to the urgency of time was the heightened emotions of the piece which we knew could not be sacrificed for speed. In an effort to bring the piece to a temporary conclusion, as none of the students had experienced the piece fully from beginning to end, Sikora and I briskly and intently read-through to the end in their stead. While the students were disappointed this did not give the cohesion and satisfactory ending preferred with live theatre, it was an opportunity to learn that recorded works have the ability to be altered in post-production.

Sikora:

Before I could hit the ground on editing, I arranged pick-up recordings with each member of the cast. In these pick-up recordings we re-recorded any lines which were flubbed, any rewrites which occurred after the Labor Day Weekend session, and the Epilogue. Students were brought in separately to complete these recordings in the same makeshift studio setting. To achieve this, I went through my notated copy of the script, compiled an individual document for each cast member listing their pick-up lines in chronological order, and worked with them one line at a time. Many of the actors were able to pick up right where they left off because by this point they were so familiar with the text. Occasionally, and particularly for our newer castmates who were reading the Epilogue for the first time, additional context was required and as Playwright/Director I was able to provide that while we recorded. I also recorded Rosenfeld reading stage directions in much the same way.

The post-production process took place in two waves: First, an audio trailer was mixed to demonstrate the quality of work we are able to achieve outside the normal production setting. Second, I set about editing the hours of audio into a ten-and-a-half-hour final product. This mostly involved trimming the recorded dialogue and mixing it with sound effects and diegetic music in Adobe Audition. Everything from lilting period music recorded by a castmate’s father to the gentle patter of the engines to the ominous ticking of the Clock which counts down the Titanic’s final seconds was mixed into the hours of dialogue. In addition to serving the needs of this project, this part of the process also helped me develop our theatrical sound design and engineering program as I used samples of the recording and mix to illustrate concepts to students in our Sound Design class.

Rosenfeld:

We released the production in consumable installments over the first week of January 2023.  Students were able to share the radio play with their friends and families; the response was delightful. Our fears about the production’s length were put to rest when one listener compared the experience to listening to a limited series podcast and others compared it to an audiobook. The radio play format has a new, eager audience. We held a listening party in the theatre at the end of the month so the students could hear it together.  Though not all were able to attend, it was incredibly satisfying as an educator to watch them experience the result of a yearlong endeavor.

An unexpected advantage to recording this as a radio play with contemporary technology is that we are able to easily insert changes into the production. This has allowed Sikora not only to record corrections to misspoken lines but to record re-writes as well. This is something we can offer playwrights in the future through NPDI’s workshop series. It also allows us to record additional actors as interest and time allows. As noted, Flying in the Face of God has well over a hundred speaking characters and with the small size of our department that means there are a handful of occasions when an actor plays two different characters within a single scene or conversation. As new students join our program, we are able to insert new voices and create a new dynamic within the same piece without having to record the entire play with the full company.

On a larger scale, this project served as a building block and test run of a program designed to prepare our students to work on new plays after they graduate. When Sikora and I decided to turn this workshop reading series into a recorded product, I took the idea to the department head as a trial run of this kind of project using in-house faculty. To that end, the ability to invite working playwrights from the Dallas Metroplex to workshop new plays with our students and provide a recording for both the playwrights and our archive is now possible and the New Play Development Initiative became an official part of the A&M-Commerce Department of Theatre.

***

Having started this work in 2014, it was never Sikora’s intention that Flying in the Fage of God might connect to the current Pandemic, but the confluence of events that led to the production of the works at TAMUC is remarkable on that score. Sikora’s desire to tell a massive story set during the Titanic disaster fed a hunger the students had to participate in telling a theatrical story of that scale. That it is a play about real people who endured a real cataclysm made it relatable to a group of persons living through another great cataclysm. Student Kaden James noted:

I felt that the characters were truly living in a once-in-a-lifetime historical event, and with that relation to our everyday life being changed due to the pandemic, I felt that my relation to the characters was on a much more human level, in knowing that they only did what they could do. There was no higher expectation or complaint to what they had done, all for the fact that they were humans in an unknown situation. . . I more related to the direness of their situation than I did to the bleakness of my own.

Another student, Kiley Towne, added, “Although they were suffering and scared, the characters always let their hope drive their actions, which was a wonderful lesson for me. We can always hope for a better tomorrow.”

The Pandemic stalled our collaborative and individual progress in many ways. So often it seems like we were robbed of the time and opportunities we feel we should have had. While producing Flying in the Face of God, participants came to identify with historic characters whose time also appeared to be running out. They were also able to identify and create with each other in a new, unexpected way. The excitement around this project helped spur the A&M-Commerce Department of Theatre’s New Play Development Initiative. This program now includes an annual recorded workshop series, a 24 Hour Theatre Project, and a group of students including playwrights, actors, designers, and technicians who meet weekly to focus on developing new plays.


Jackie Rosenfeld is the Assistant Professor of Playwriting and Theatre Pedagogy at Texas A&M Commerce. Her play keepingabreast produced by Blunder Woman Productions is available on Audible.

Audible to keepingabreast

Cade M. Sikora is the Assistant Professor of Scenic Design and Technical Direction at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Cade Sikora’s portfolio


[i] The recording of Flying in the Face of God, including its trailer, is available for a limited time at: https://on.soundcloud.com/VDTRM

QR code to Flying in the Face of God
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