Shelter in plays: UC Davis Theatre Department to turn spring play into a film

Shelter in plays: UC Davis Theatre Department to turn spring play into a film

Photo Credits: MARIO RODRIGUEZ / AGGIE

UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance will produce spring play as a film, shot by students on their own devices

This story is the first installation of The California Aggie’s two-part digital art series.

Artistic endeavors have gone digital with the present need for social distancing. It’s even become common to open Instagram and see a favorite singer putting on a live concert for digital followers. But even with advanced streaming technology and social media, some art forms, such as theater, might still seem impossible to continue while quarantined. Despite restricted communication and prohibited social gathering, the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance plans to move forward with its spring play — it will just look a little different than usual. 

The play, “AntigoneNOW,” a reinterpretation of the 2,000-year-old Greek tragedy “Antigone” by Sophocles, will be an entirely novel production. The play will be produced by students and staff around the globe, created and performed almost entirely by women and contain multiple languages. It will also be presented in the form of a film, shot by the students in their own homes. 

According to Margaret Kemp, associate professor of theatre and dance and co-director of “Antigone,” students will be participating from around the world, including Tokyo and Shanghai. Co-director Sinéad Rushe will be working remotely from London.

“We’ve got this gigantic cast, some of them have dispersed around the world,” Kemp said. “Everyone will be working from wherever they are.”

A lot of different art fields have created similar content, such as video dance performances. In the theater world, however, this production is unique.

“There are some templates out there, but really nothing like what we’re doing with ‘Antigone,’” Kemp said.

From stage to screen

Throughout Kemp’s career, she produced three other solo pieces similar to this new project of turning digital work into film.

“The pieces mostly have been shown in gallery settings, […] and they were really well-received, so I was confident that it could be done and it could be quite beautiful,” Kemp said.

According to Kemp, the footage shot independently by students should be finished by the end of April. Then she will compile and edit the footage to create the ultimate film.

For cast-member and MFA student Danielle Levin, this reinterpretation of the play seems apt amid a crisis and provides further opportunities for group unity.

“In times like this, arts become something new,” Levin said. “It feels like this project really has the chance for all of us who are in the cast and crew to work as an ensemble to create a piece together,” Levin said. “That is super exciting, and the fact that it’s unknown kind of highlights that.”

Cast-member Zhenglin Zhang, a first-year plant science major, also looks forward to participating in this project.

“Especially because a lot of the people involved in the production are theatre majors, […] it allows us an alternative way of exploring art in general, not just of theatrical productions,” Zhang said. “For me, especially, this is the first time a director has given me so much freedom.”

A global stage

The finished piece will be shown in mid-May around the UC Davis campus and, eventually, the world. Kemp plans to exhibit the film in New Zealand next year, and also hopes that her students can play a part in sharing the piece.

“It will be shown outside, on buildings on campus, during what would have been our week to do the show on stage,” Kemp said. “Maybe students who are outside of the U.S. will help us to get it shown wherever they are, too.”

The film will be global in not only its audience, but also its use of languages.

“Because it is a 2,000-year-old play, one of the first things I did was to start to ask some students who are really interested in it to see if they could translate it into their home languages,” Kemp said. “We have at least five languages in the piece that will be spoken.”

Zhang also plans to bring his own culture to his part in the play. He is the only male voice in the cast, representing through song the spirit of Antigone’s brother. As Zhang will be an off-camera presence and play a role invented for him, Kemp said his character will show the strength of the brother’s relationship with Antigone, rather than distract from the otherwise all-female production.

Zhang said he got into the show after Kemp asked those auditioning to sing a folk song.

“I’m looking to see what kind of folk music I can bring to the piece,” he said. “I am trying to bring in languages through my own folk music, because I speak both English and Chinese and I can speak a bit of Malay as well. I’m hoping to bring in different cultures, if I can.”

Arts in a time of crisis

According to Kemp, the story of “Antigone,” is relevant — now more than ever. 

“This is a play about how a community [deals] with grief and strife,” Kemp said. “It seems to be almost like we picked it after this [crisis], but we didn’t, we picked it before. It’s a 2,000-year-old play that’s really dealing with a lot of the same things. It’s so current.” 

Kemp said the situation and this endeavor has created a more interconnected theater community.

“Part of it being in the virtual space is there’s a sense of sharing in this time of crisis because a lot of people want to do the same thing with their students,” Kemp said.

For Zhang, the play acts as a way to continue art and adjust to a world in crisis.

“One really important part about this entire situation is that there have been a lot of creative avenues for people,” Zhang said. “For us, as artists, I think we have a play that we wanted to do and tried to adapt it to what’s happening now in the world. I thought that it’s just a really powerful way for us to continue doing the art form that we love but at the same time not deviating from what’s happening in the world.”

According to Levin, theater can have another powerful impact, especially given the current climate.

“I’m a theater artist, so I believe in the medium of theater,” Levin said. “I’m sad not to have the in-person interaction which is what draws me to the art form, but I do think that telling stories and retaining humanity is important always, and for people who are in isolation, I think it’s probably even more important. There’s something about telling stories about the collective nature that, to me, happens exactly in theater.”

Written by: Sophie Dewees — features@theaggie.org