UT Theatre Festival Goes Online Because of COVID
Apr 25, 2021

UT Theatre Festival Goes Online Because of COVID

Reporting Texas TV

AUSTIN, Texas — When COVID-19 halted performances in front of live audiences, UT Department of Theatre and Dance students and faculty showcased their creations in a new and safe way. 

The 2021 edition of the Cohen New Works Festival, a biennial celebration of student work, took place April 12 through 16. Begun in 2007, this year’s festival was the first to be held completely online.

Turning theatrical performances into filmed productions is not simple. Senior Nick Saldivar began writing the play “Talk of Graves” two years ago. As he reworked it for an online format, he had to learn new skills in a short amount of time.

“I started completely again about four months ago. It took me a while. I had never filmed anything before, and because it was a one-man show, I had to film it all myself,” Saldivar said.

“Talk of Graves” features Saldivar acting in four separate stories of the paranormal. Although he said filming the show on his own was difficult, certain aspects of the production were easier in this format.

“I didn’t have to rush,” Saldivar said. “I could just film and take time on these scenes, and whatever it is, I can edit out.”

Senior Attia Rasul faced different challenges as she worked remotely with actors in her play “Memory Box.” She said one major difficulty was dealing with lag while directing her actors through Zoom.

“Their video started lagging, so after a while we had to basically do blind acting,” Rasul said.

“We had to turn off their Zoom, and I had to just hear if that was a good take or not.”

While Rasul liked how her final product turned out, there are parts of the performance that she believed would have worked better on stage, especially in the script.

“It’s not as wordy as other plays but it still has a lot of words, which can sometimes be really long on film, but if it was on stage, I feel like those moments would be really highlighted,” she said.

Saldivar said he would not go back and do his project on stage if given the chance.

“With the content that I wrote, I feel like I made a really good medium. I changed something that I didn’t think I could do in person.”

Faculty produce the Cohen New Works Festival, but associate professor Kirk Lynn said students run the event.

“Mostly we exist to cut red tape as they interact with the larger bureaucracy of UT,” Lynn said.

“Faculty members want to talk to faculty members. They don’t always have the confidence to engage directly with the students.”

Along with directing her own dance project, senior Lindsay Ball served on the selection committee. She and other committee members spent ten hours on a Zoom call watching the submissions and narrowing their list to the final projects.

“I really liked being able to help guide a big entity and a big influence in the art into a better direction,” Ball said.

“You get to sort of see the breadth of what the department is, because we don’t always interact with each other.”

Ball titled her project “Collecting Dust.” Originally envisioned as an interactive art installation, she transformed it into a dance piece with performers who danced among strings of Instagram photos.

“It kind of was working with the idea of memories, and the idea that our social media pages are so 2D, yet so real. It was originally meant to just be an art installation hanging up on campus, but with COVID, that wasn’t able to get approved,” she said.

A performer in Lindsay Ball’s “Collecting Dust” dances among Instagram photos. Originally meant to be a live art installation, Ball adapted it for a virtual viewing experience. (Photo: Lindsay Ball)

The disruption of classes by COVID-19 in March 2020 did not affect the Cohen New Works Festival because it regularly happens in odd-numbered years. Administrators proposed postponing the festival to 2022, but students chose to organize the festival online.

“The students thought seriously about it,” Lynn said.

“They said, ‘no, we are artists, we’re making work, and the world happens to be this way now and we want to respond to the world.’”