Freshman theater creations major Paloma Sutter said she was devastated to hear she could not perform in “House of Bernarda Alba” as she had planned.
In Ball State University’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of Theatre and Dance decided to cancel performances for the remainder of the school year for safety reasons. But, the department allowed cast members to perform for an audience with what they had prepared.
“It’s not a requirement to have performance hours down for my major like it is for the acting majors, so for me, it was definitely very heartbreaking to have the show canceled,” Sutter said. “To be someone of my major, especially a freshman, being cast in a show doesn’t happen a whole bunch. So, I understand that my opportunities are limited.”
“House of Bernarda Alba”
Sutter was getting lunch in the LaFollette dining hall and read the email announcement that performances were canceled but that the cast could perform that evening, March 12, for a small audience.
“I just remember immediately upon reading [the email] starting to cry by myself,” Sutter said. “Especially since it was in LaFollete, I feel like that was the saddest thing.”
Because the cast and crew of each show were not fully prepared to perform, Sarah Jenkins, Department of Theatre managing director, said the showcases were treated as final rehearsals, not performances.
Sutter said she was looking forward to sharing her first role in a college play with family and friends. But, each actor in the department’s shows that were closing early — “Tenants,” “Sister,” “House of Bernarda Alba” and “Crazy For You” — was allowed to invite only one person to watch their first and last performance for free.
“Obviously, everybody was a little heartbroken that our show was closing so soon before it could even open,” Sutter said. “But, at the same time, I think we were all grateful to at least get the opportunity to share it with some people.”
Sutter first invited her mom, but because her mom had to work, she chose her roommate instead, which “still meant the absolute world” to her. She said multiple friends and family members were planning to see a performance before the show was canceled.
Director of “House of Bernarda Alba” Veronica Santoyo said she was in the rehearsal room with some cast members when she read the email announcing theater performances would be canceled.
“There was a general sense of loss, some students were stressed and some cried, but it was understood why that had to happen,” Santoyo said.
Hours after the email was sent out, the cast of “House of Bernarda Alba” prepared for their final rehearsal without costumes.
“We did have live sound,” Santoyo said. “I don’t know how I would have felt if we had performed opening night and then it closed. I’m sure I would feel bad then as well, but more people would have seen it and could have seen the design work.”
Director of “Tenants” Sarah Heylmun said the cast and crew felt prepared for opening night, which was scheduled for March 17, five days before the email announcing shows were canceled was sent out.
“We finally were like, 'We have it all together. We just have to add tech, and then it’s going to go up, and it’s going to be incredible,'” Heylmun said. “Even without the tech, it was amazing. It just really sucks because we were so close to a full show.”
Without tech prepared for the show, Heylmun said she played sound for the “Tenants” final rehearsal on March 15 through a Bluetooth speaker.
Freshman Caroline Gilley played one of the three characters in “Tenants” as her first big role in any high school or college show.
“This was like the role of a lifetime almost,” Gilley said. “So, my experience has changed a lot because [‘Tenants’] taught me what theater can be and what more is out there to explore.”
Gilley said Heylmun told her and the rest of the cast that they shouldn't feel their time spent on “Tenants” was wasted.
“It was very hard to cope at first — it felt unfair that we were so close, [and] the timing felt horrible,” Gilley said. “But Sarah, every single step of the way, was positive about it and she was telling me and my castmates, ‘This doesn’t mean that your work was for nothing. This doesn’t mean the department didn’t want to see it. This is just about timing and safety.’”
Gilley said she felt bad for the crew members of other shows not being able to showcase their work at the March 12 and 15 studio runs.
“There’s people behind the scenes who were working really hard, who also didn’t get to show off their work because they had built these sets and props and worked so hard on them,” Gilley said. “It breaks my heart to know that they’ll never get to showcase their work.”
The “Tenants” rehearsal included props but no makeup, which Heylmun said was an important aspect of the show.
“Even though [the makeup] was already planned, we still couldn’t do it, which is sad,” Heylmun said. “Since we weren’t adding any tech elements, it was what we had to do.”
“Tenants” was scheduled to debut in the Cave Theatre, which Gilley estimated has a 40-person capacity. Gilley said because that was under the CDC recommended group gathering of 100 people or fewer at the time, she thinks “Tenants” could have performed more than one show for an audience.
“I still kind of held out hope … and in my heart, in a perfect world, I think if we spread people out in the theater and did a deep clean in between, it might have worked,” Gilley said. “But I know our [department] chair Bill Jenkins fought for each one of us to have whatever showing that we could have possible.”
Heylmun said allowing each show to continue with multiple performances wasn’t worth the risk of people getting sick.
“Even if the performance is amazing and incredible and life-changing, it’s not worth putting someone’s health or safety at risk,” Heylmun said.
“Crazy For You”
Though costume design for “Crazy For You” wasn’t complete, director Karen Kessler said actors used their own wardrobes for inspiration.
“The guys who were the cowboys from Nevada all came in wearing jeans and plaid shirts, and there were six showgirls, Broadway showgirls, and they came in with black dance skirts and tops with the color their costumes were going to be,” Kessler said. “It was really lovely that everybody came together as a group and wanted to create something for each other.”
Kessler said she feels bad for the students in the show, but she had to reframe her perspective.
“Nobody’s sick, nobody’s dying, but you’re losing something that’s really important, and you just have to deal with the disappointment of it,” Kessler said. “It was devastating for the kids because they’ve worked so hard, and they’re working at something they truly love.”
Despite the devastation, Kessler said, she doesn’t think her time spent on the show was wasted, and neither do her cast members.
“If you are somebody who understands that a product has to be produced, but it’s always the process that is the most interesting, you know the real learning comes from the process,” Kessler said. “Relationships, which always get built in a show, and the knowledge that we were creating something, I think the students found joy in that while we were in the rehearsal process.”
Amid the surprise and disappointment, Kessler was impressed with how her cast reacted.
“Our students were amazingly human and mature about understanding that given what was happening to other people and other places, they were losing the show,” she said.
The night of the announcement, Kessler said the cast performed the biggest dance numbers together to have fun before preparing for their final rehearsal.
Though no cast members performed their shows as planned, Santoyo said the cast and crew members of “House of Bernarda Alba” bonded over only being allowed one audience.
“I just thought it showed solidarity,” Santoyo said. “Of course, they wished all of their work could have been seen, but they seemed to be taking it the best way possible. It was more than any individual actor — it was more about everybody coming together to tell a story.”
Sutter said she appreciates the friendships she made in “House of Bernarda Alba” and the lessons she learned from being in the show made her commitment worth it.
“I learned so much — I don’t think I’d ever consider it a waste,” Sutter said. “Even if we hadn’t been able to perform it once, I think the whole experience is something I will hold on to. I never think that a creative outlet is a waste.”
Contact Grace McCormick with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @graceMc564.