Silent Sky 1

Actors are required to wear masks while performing in ‘Silent Sky,’ a Minnesota State University production scheduled to open tonight in the Andreas Theatre. Character Peter Shaw, played by Ty Hudson, stands near a seated Henrietta Leavitt, played by Lindsey Oetken.

Minnesota State University graduate student James C. Van Oort is set to direct a drama in the college’s Andreas Theatre tonight.

The five-day run of “Silent Sky” is slated at a time when, because of COVID-19 health concerns, all Broadway performances in New York City have been suspended through the remainder of the year and the coronavirus’ transmission level for the MSU campus has been at “medium” since the beginning of fall semester.

“As long as the campus is open, we will have (live) plays,” said Corrie Eggismann, director of public relations for the MSU Department of Theatre and Dance.

“Opportunities to perform are one of the reasons students enroll at MSU,” said Julie Kerr-Berry, the theater and dance department chair.

“Our dancers and actors so want to be here so they can practice their craft.”

Kerr-Berry said staff and administrators are being mindful of safety for students and audience members who buy tickets to see live theater.

“It’s all been very demanding of the cast and the crew,” Van Oort said, describing what it’s been like to prepare for a show in the time of a pandemic.

Social distancing is required on stage and while crews are at work on sets in The Earley Center for Performing Arts. Some solutions for adaptations were relatively easy for a creative community such as theater folk.

“Our costume department designed (protective face) masks that fit the ‘Silent Sky’ characters’ (personalities),” Van Oort said.

A production he’d been preparing for the previous theater season at MSU was canceled when the campus closed as the result of safety concerns during the pandemic.

“The students have been very, very responsible,” said Matt Caron, managing director and assistant professor of theater at MSU. “They know that in order to do this we cannot have any outbreaks.”

If more than 5% of campus cases have unknown links to another case over a seven-day period, administrators will consider canceling campus events, including theater productions.

The small number of student complaints come from a place of frustration about how to portray their characters, not an unwillingness to follow guidelines. Scenes that would have in the past included physical intimacy, such as between two sisters or a pair of lovers, present a challenge for the young actors.

“They say, ‘We would want to touch — that’s normal,’” Caron said.

Van Oort said actors instead will use more body language to express characters’ emotions.

MSU’s new way of presenting theater includes a lengthening of intermission times, additional show dates as well as adjustments for audience seating, box office procedures and waiting lines.

“There will be social distancing signs up to the bathrooms,” Caron said.

Seating in the Andreas Theatre is limited to 25% capacity, which is 63 seats. Potential audience members must complete an online health screening before being cleared for attendance.

The Earley Center also is home to MSU’s larger theater venue, The Ted Paul Theatre. Before the pandemic hit, main stage performances the larger space were considered sold out when its 479 seats were filled. Up to 120 patrons will be allowed in for performances of “Hair” when the musical opens Sept. 23.

Caron said ticket prices increased this season, for the first time in 10 years. He’s not expecting the shows to bring in large profits.

For Van Oort, directing the production helps fulfill requirements for his master thesis, and it gave him the chance to speak in person with the writer of “Silent Skies.”

“Not all the time do you get to talk to the playwright, and Lauren Gunderson was recently referred to as the most produced playwright (in the country).”

Insight from the playwright via social media and “amazing” designs and actors have resulted in a production that’s a beautiful expression of humans in the face of oppression, said Van Oort, who then added historical context to the new theater normal at MSU.

“A hundred years ago, during the Spanish influenza pandemic, actors had to wear (protective face) masks on stage, too.”

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