It is no secret that Covid-19 has put a strain on the UK’s live theatre, especially given recent restrictions legally limiting public indoor gatherings to six people. This is doubly true of student theatre, and the upcoming term promises to be a testing one for Oxford’s student production companies, given the necessity of hosting auditions and rehearsals, communicating with cast and crew and creating engaging theatre almost entirely on a virtual basis. Into this uncertain situation comes the virtual musical theatre cabaret Songs From The Old World, which is hosted by student company 00Productions a couple of weeks before the start of term. The show features songs from musicals whose productions, either professional or in the Oxford musical theatre scene, have been cancelled or delayed by the pandemic, and has the dual aim of exploring the potential of virtual theatre and music while also raising awareness of charities supporting the struggling arts industry. The Cherwell stage editors have (virtually) sat down with the cabaret’s director Imogen Albert, musical director Livi van Warmelo and two of its cast members, Alex Waldman and Trina Banerjee to discuss the triumphs and pitfalls of a virtual production, the important work of the charities which they are supporting and how we all can help UK theatre:
Why did you choose a cabaret format rather than presenting, for example, a virtual play or musical?
Livi van Warmelo: Coming off the back of The Last Five Years, I think we all felt like we’d explored all we could at the moment of that particular virtual musical format. We’d done what we’d set out to do and to another virtual musical would be like rehashing old material rather than coming up with anything new. That didn’t mean we were done with musical material in general though (or at least I hope not as I’d be out of a job), so we landed on a cabaret night designed to raise awareness of the arts and raise as much as possible for freelancers, practitioners and artists affected by theatrical shutdown. It also gave us much more creative freedom than ever before – we had a list of fantastic singers, a list of songs we’d always wanted to do and we had to piece them together. It was every MD’s dream – imagine if someone came to you and said you can do any song from any musical and we’ll put a full band together to accompany an amazing singer, plus you raise funds for a good cause. It’s a no brainer.
Imogen Albert: Although theatre as a whole is suffering, musical theatre particularly is struggling to find a place in the lockdown, just because of the restrictions in place. We knew we wanted to do some kind of musical theatre, and we were keen to branch out and not repeat ourselves after The Last Five Years. We also were eager to focus on charity and put on something with very low production costs so that we were able to raise awareness but also donate as much funding as possible to these charities, and from there the idea of this virtual cabaret seemed like the obvious next step. Once again none of us were ready to give up theatre, and the prospect of combining some of our favourite numbers from really any show was so exciting especially as many are from shows that we as students don’t always have the option to put on. What was especially exciting was being able to offer the cast opportunities to get involved and keep musical theatre alive, and for some of them this will be their first theatre experience which has been really rewarding for both sides .
What were the pros and cons or a virtual format (from the perspective of both cast and crew)?
LvW: Ha. Massive pros and cons for a virtual format. First off, despite being more prepared for a virtual show this time, one will always underestimate just how long it takes. You tick along thinking ‘it’s fine, I’ve got ages’ until you’re suddenly two weeks away with masses still to do. It’s also a lot more to get your head around – with live shows you rehearse the ensemble, the band as a whole, and it gets exported as one final product that is created in real time. With virtual shows, every additional person/instrument requires a whole extra thought process, keeping on top of individual rehearsals, recording, filming, cleaning etc. On the flip side of that though, there’s a chance to make a performance exactly what we want of it – we can go much more into detail with each performer to figure out what is exactly needed of a performance and go deeper into the intention of the song. You do lose the experience of creating a close-knit company that works together to achieve an end, but having these rays of sunshine on the other end of my Zoom calls laughing with me and singing at (not with, thanks to inevitable delays…) me has really brightened life away from uni. The other thing is it’s completely opened up the range of possibilities of what we can do with a show! Performers spread across the globe? Need 15 band members in one song and 2 in another? No problem! The only limit at that point is imagination and creativity, and luckily Imogen and Harvey [Dovell, the production’s producer] have that in spades.
Alex Waldman: Definitely strong points for both, from a technical perspective it’s always challenging organising and finding ways around things and communication is often hard, but this in itself is a pro as it means we’re experimenting in ways we never would have before. As Livi said there’s just a lot more going on at one time than if we were putting on a live performance, with everyone needing their own material for each song, even with ensemble numbers. While it’s really great to be able to give attention and to just be able to work with every single cast member equally it is a lot to get your head around, especially with everything being online, although when it gets to the night it’ll definitely be a lot less stressful and we can sit back and enjoy the show along with everyone else which is definitely a nice feeling!
I miss the strong camaraderie between cast members in live productions while learning the score, blocking scenes, etc. Without an in person experience, you don’t have the ability to play off of your peers while acting in a scene but rather have to imagine your scene partners. You are also unable to experience all the disparate aspects of a musical theatre number come together in real time. On the other hand, even though I do not get to participate in the growth of a musical number from start to finish, I have come to appreciate the element of surprise provided by the virtual format. I provide my contribution and subsequently get to witness a finished product. In addition, in comparison to live theatre, I have the unique learning opportunity to see myself on film where I am able to dissect my acting and movement choices.
Trina Banerjee: This was pretty much my first time being involved in a musical. I’ve always been a massive fan of musical theatre, and try to catch every show that tours here in Singapore but have been way too nervous to try out for a musical performance before. The virtual format was quite exciting because the fear of auditioning was significantly decreased. I think this was such a great experience (although I’m sure it must have been a logistical nightmare) and I am very appreciative, and honestly I could see myself auditioning for a musical production in Oxford once things get safer. I suppose cons would include the huge time difference between where I live and the UK, which makes rehearsals a little difficult to arrange for sometimes!
How has it compared to your experience of in-person theatre and music?
AW: Let’s be real, we’re all missing live music and theatre a lot at the moment. All of the artists, actors, musicians, directors and techies know how important social interaction and response is to the perceived success of a show – if everybody’s at loggerheads or the production isn’t gelling then it shows. We’ve had to manufacture that social interaction – we have duets completed without people ever sharing a room, we have conversations that happen alone, and the only time that the company’s ever together is on the group chat when I message ‘tracks are up’ or ‘keep them coming’ or some form of self-deprecating humour. The best moment for me is hearing it all come together – hearing the harmonies work themselves in and a new track filling in previously empty space, and experiencing the closest thing to a live ensemble I’ve heard since lockdown began before anyone else does. And you’ll hear it too in a few weeks!
What sort of music can we look forward to hearing at the event?
IA: We were able to literally choose any song from any musical, it was an incredibly hard and long process, but it means we were really just be able to choose music that we wouldn’t normally have been able to do so you can expect a really wide range of music to classic songs that everyone knows to some hidden gems that honestly we were discovering for the first time.
LvW: The beauty of this format is that we could closely match people’s voice types to songs they need to sing – I’m pretty sure our original setlist rounded out at about 4 hours just because of the amount of ‘but they need a solo’ and ‘what about this for them’ messages we bandied about. We’ve cut it down now into a very tight setlist, aiming to showcase old and new, romantic and funny, ensemble and solo, and more.
Are there any particular songs that you’re performing which mean a lot to you?
AW: Dear Evan Hansen was the last piece of musical theatre I was able to see live before the pandemic. I went with a close friend and had the most amazing day. Therefore, getting to sing ‘Sincerely Me’ brings about a bit of nostalgia and sparked joy during what has been quite a trying time.
TB: I am personally a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, so being able to perform ‘Breathe’ from [his 2005 musical] In the Heights is genuinely such an honour and privilege. Mandy Gonzalez [who originated the role of Nina Rosario in the Broadway production of In The Heights] and Eva Noblezada [who has performed ‘Breathe’ on tour] are insanely talented, and I hope to be able to live up to the high standards.
Tell us a bit about the charities your cabaret is supporting.
LvW: It was important to us that this event targeted as many theatrical practitioners that were affected and still are by this pandemic as possible. Firstly, we’re supporting the Oxford Playhouse; in order for freelancers to continue to work, they need somewhere to perform, and the OP as a frequent student haunt and collaborator seemed the obvious choice. For the freelancers, we have Artists Supporting Artists, a fund designed to support practitioners individually rather than relying on project-based grants, allowing them to survive and thrive even when the jobs are lacking (think: global pandemic). Finally, we’re supporting the National Black Arts Alliance, working tirelessly to bring the arts as learning tools to disenfranchised areas and change community perceptions of Black culture.
IA: It was really important to us to bring awareness to charities that are helping the arts and particularly theatre in this time. It is something that means so much to so many of us and the way that the arts has been treated since the lockdown is deeply worried and upsetting to many young artists hoping to pursue a career as well as those of us with a deep love for it. The charities we have chosen are ones that affect us personally as well as those supporting larger, more important causes which we felt needed people to be more aware of. Our wonderful charity coordinator Priya has researched the charities and made sure that our efforts will have the maximum effect.
In general, what things can we be doing to help the theatre industry in the age of Covid-19?
LvW: More important than anything is to raise awareness for the arts outside of your art-centric circle. The greatest risk at the moment is that the general public misconstrues the arts as luxury and unessential, or that they view the practitioners as hobbyists and lazy, looking for a government payout to fund their easy-going lifestyle. Anyone who works in the industry or alongside knows how hard everyone involved works (I won’t begin to go into the crazy hours we’ve put in to make this happen…). Check out Public Campaign for the Arts, as well as signing any petitions you come across and making sure the freelancers in your life know that you’re at least rooting for them (really, it means a lot). If you can, donate to freelancer funds, buy gift certificates at your local theatre, go and grab a coffee there if it’s safe to do so – anything to keep the cash-flow manageable. And stay creative!
IA: I personally will take any opportunity to get to the theatre and watch any productions that are being put on, not only for my own enjoyment but because at this stage every little helps, whether that be student productions or professional. We can all help by donating to charities like the ones we are supporting and the many many others that are fighting to keep theatre alive, but I think the most important thing we can do is to just keep creating and getting involved in any way we can with the arts and encourage others to engage as fully as possible.
Songs From The Old World premieres on 19th September, tickets can be purchased here.