Skyler Tipton was on stage the last time the Purdue Department of Theatre delivered a live main-stage performance: March 1, 2020.

Back then, Tipton and his fellow castmates in “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” had no reason to believe that it would be the last in-person theatrical performance at Purdue for nearly a year. But not only did COVID-19’s emergence upend nearly every aspect of citizens’ daily routines, it effectively shut down live entertainment across the globe and on campus.

Until now.

Friday’s 7:30 p.m. ET livestream of Jessica Swale’s “Nell Gwynn” represents the Department of Theatre’s triumphant return to the stage, although it will not be a routine production. Campus health guidelines still prevent a live audience from gathering in the Nancy T. Hansen Theatre, and the performers will be both socially distanced and wearing plastic face shields that Tipton affectionately calls “beekeeper helmets.” The performance will nonetheless provide those involved – including online theatre-goers – with a taste of what they have desperately missed during the pandemic.

“After being away from it for so long, I was talking to members of the cast when we started incorporating some of the lighting elements on stage about how, for an actor, basking under the lights is a different experience than doing a Zoom reading of a play online,” said Tipton, a second-year MFA acting student from Tamarac, Florida. “That’s still a great experience because you’re still working together, but I think there’s something different about being in the space and doing the work.”

Excitement over being back in the physical performance space seems to be a universal sentiment among cast and crew.

Kaleigh Stohler, a third-year theatre major from Fishers, Indiana, will play title character Nell Gwynn, who emerged in the 1600s as one of London’s first major female actresses. Stohler said the opportunity to perform the show to a live audience just once – digital showings on Saturday (2:30 and 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.) will be replays of Friday’s live performance – will make Friday night’s atmosphere even more unique.

“Everybody’s very excited to have the full experience of the sound, the lights, the costume, everything coming together,” Stohler said. “Obviously, there are so many different realms that people live in of work that they’re doing on the show, and to come into one space where we can all collaborate together is something that hasn’t been done in a long time, especially with a team that is as big as the Purdue theatre department is. I can definitely feel that energy of everybody excited to come together to make one big show again in a shared space.”

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Kaleigh Stohler as Nell Gwynn and Skyler Tipton as King Charles II share a scene in the Purdue Department of Theatre’s presentation of ‘Nell Gwynn.’ (Photo by David Ching)

Getting to this point has been no simple feat. The blizzard-like weather conditions that complicated the final week of rehearsals were only the most recent obstacle the cast and crew faced in getting a show to the stage during a global pandemic.

Between adhering to the Protect Purdue protocols governing health safety and quarantining, an extended time away from campus between Thanksgiving and the start of spring semester in mid-January, and rethinking how to manage a production in the COVID-19 era, “Nell Gwynn” required a monumental effort that Department of Theatre chair Ann M. Shanahan applauds.

“Just like our hard work to return safely to in-person and hybrid classes in the fall, we have proceeded in the same spirit with live rehearsal and production,” Shanahan said. “Though some colleagues in the Big Ten are producing, not everyone in theatre in higher education is doing live production right now. The careful, hard work of Purdue students, staff, and faculty to do so safely is something to celebrate. I am also very alert to the responsibility that we carry as we move forward.”

Preparations begin

Actors’ preparations for “Nell Gwynn” started during fall semester, with the cast learning of their roles in mid-October. They did not gather in the same physical space until the start of spring semester, however, as the first two weeks of rehearsals occurred virtually via Zoom.

That was a new experience for director Will Lewis and the performers as they took their first, slow steps toward building their characters and developing a rapport with castmates over a computer screen.

“It’s really hard to build those relationships with the other characters that you’d typically get more time to do, and you don’t get to have as close of interactions,” Stohler said. “And so, it’s really kind of on you to set up this imaginary world for yourself.”

Tipton said the trying circumstances motivated the cast to approach their roles like professional actors who are expected to have command of their scripts when rehearsals begin. He credited the cast for using the time between Thanksgiving break and spring semester to prepare for when everyone was finally able to gather in the same physical rehearsal space.

And even then, there were details to iron out among performers doing this essential preparation work together in person for the first time.

“For me personally it was line cues, making sure that I’m saying my line at the appropriate time,” said Tipton, who plays King Charles II. “I knew all my lines, but obviously I haven’t read them with the other cast members yet. That’s always a challenge of when you’re in the space, you can get that down. It was kind of like connecting the dots of all the work that we all did individually, and last month was the first real time we got to do that.”

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Kaleigh Stohler and Kidany Camilo Nieves are two of the stars in ‘Nell Gwynn,’ the first main-stage live production by Purdue’s Department of Theatre in nearly a year. (Photo by David Ching)

Of course, early preparations did not include only those who will appear on stage. The crew was able to begin much of the behind-the-scenes work in the fall, as well, after department leaders like Shanahan and faculty technical director Rich Dionne combed through guidance documents from world health organizations and theatrical organizations to determine how to stage a live performance as safely as possible.

“Interestingly, as we looked at developing protocols for our work in the department to support our laboratory spaces being open in the fall; we were building scenery in the fall, we were building costumes in the fall, we hung lights and did that work in the fall,” said Dionne, associate professor of practice in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance. “And as we looked toward starting rehearsals – and this is really a nod to Mitch Daniels and the Protect Purdue team – everything that we were reading about how to approach those safe practices in all of our spaces really was for the most part encapsulated in the Protect Purdue protocols.”

As helpful as the Protect Purdue guidelines were, though, they didn’t cover everything that a theatre group would need to consider as it attempted to stage a safe performance. For instance, how would they go about placing microphones on the performers’ costumes before they take the stage? And how could they handle quick costume changes without having a dresser coming into close physical contact with the actor backstage as they rapidly swapped costumes?

“We had to drill down into some of those details,” Dionne said. “But we’ve got some great staff members who do fantastic work thinking through the logistics of applying Protect Purdue and what we’ve read from these other guidance documents to, ‘OK, what do we do, then? Let’s teach actors to put microphones on themselves. Let’s not have the wireless mic tech in contact. Let’s design costumes assuming we can’t do quick changes where there’s a dresser who’s going to take all the costumes off. We’re just not going to do that. We’re going to change the way we approach the production.’ ”

A different type of performance

Although the performers will once again occupy the same performance space, “Nell Gwynn” still will not have the look and feel that theatregoers might expect from a traditional production being staged under normal circumstances.

The cast will remain physically separated, and their face coverings serve as ever-present reminders that these are not normal times. Lewis and the performers understood these obstacles from the start, and so they embraced the oddness of the situation.

They hope the audience will, as well.

“Written within the play are various different intimate moments: kisses, embraces, hugs, gentle caresses, that, because of COVID, we can’t do in any way that actually would replicate the fondness of that intimacy,” said Lewis, visiting assistant professor in directing and performance. “So, we just went ahead and embraced the theatricality of it. We staged and got a lot of collaborative feedback from students on how they felt like it would feed into the world in a way. And so, we’ve gone a little farcical with it.

“We’ve created a selection of what we call gestures which sort of harken back to the attitudes that would have been the acting style of the day to create these really big, bold replications of what those intimate moments would be,” Lewis continued. “They won’t feel intimate. We went the opposite of intimate. We went very out there. But I think ideally if the audience can allow themselves to go along for the ride on it, to just believe that this is the fiction that’s allowed and created within it, that it actually will make them understand the rest of the play in a much better, fuller sense.”

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Kaleigh Stohler, Mackenzie Zorn, and their castmates in ‘Nell Gwynn’ will wear protective plastic shields on stage as part of the safety protocols the theatre department adopted in order to safely stage a live production. (Photo by David Ching)

Another major difference will be the lack of a live audience – an essential ingredient in what makes traditional theatre such a compelling artform. “Nell Gwynn” is a comedy, so the performers will miss not only the audience’s energy, but also its laughter.

“We really honed in from the beginning on the aspects of performance and being seen and the relationship between celebrity – which is a sort of stand-in for actors – and the relationship between actors and audience,” Lewis said. “So, going into the changes that we’ve had to make with COVID, it still aligned with what we wanted to do, other than the fact that we had to take the audience out in terms of the audience that could be there to relate and interact and give feedback with the actors and have that conversation in real time.”

However, Friday’s performance will still be live, and Shanahan hopes the audience will be able to appreciate being able to watch the event as it occurs.

“I feel a sort of thrill at knowing that something is happening live, that you’re receiving it in a moment that it’s happening,” Shanahan said. “And even if you can’t be there to laugh out loud and have the actor hear it, you can still experience it knowing that it’s happening in some kind of shared universal space.”

Streaming the show

Some theatre companies aiming to deliver virtual performances during the pandemic have scrambled to identify partners to livestream their events. That was not an issue at Purdue since Hall of Music Productions is located just across campus.

The group has extensive experience filming everything from live sporting events to the Purdue Contemporary Dance Company’s virtual Winter Works concert – which was also held in the Hansen Theatre with the same three-camera setup that the Hall of Music will employ for Friday’s livestream.

Utilizing a static, wide-angle shot from the back of the theater and remote-controlled PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras on either side of the stage, they will be able to broadcast the performance without disrupting the proceedings – except where the cameras’ involvement is acknowledged on stage.

“We know we’re going to have cameras, so it’s like, ‘OK, refer to the camera. Don’t ignore that it exists. Don’t pretend that you are creating a full reality divorced from you as an actor on this stage in a room wearing special protective gear just to be able to perform,’ ” Lewis said.

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After two weeks of virtual rehearsals via Zoom in November, the ‘Nell Gwynn’ cast’s first in-person rehearsals occurred in mid-January at the start of spring semester. (Photo by David Ching)

The setup is far from ideal, but it’s the closest to normal that a campus performing arts group can get for now. Those involved hope that the show – itself a love letter to theatre – evokes the audience’s fondness for what they love about the artform as they await the opportunity to gather and once again view a live performance together.

“I kind of a little bit hope that they miss being in the space,” Dionne said. “Not that I want them to not take anything away that’s wonderful from the performance, but I do hope that there’s a sense of, ‘This is really wonderful, but there’s still something missing. I wish we could be there.’ ”

Perhaps one day having witnessed this performance will also remind viewers – as well as those on stage and behind the scenes – of how unusual it was to deliver a production in the age of COVID-19.

“This is going to be a unique experience certainly for both ourselves in the cast and the crew and the design team, but also the audience,” Tipton said. “I think they’ll be able to sit here and say in 10, 15, 20 years, ‘Yeah, I remember COVID. I remember seeing that show and everybody had these visors on and they looked like beekeepers, but you know what? They were having fun and they were celebrating the theatre, they were telling this story, and they were having fun with it.’

“I think that’s something that will certainly be memorable for me.”

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