During the spring 2021 semester, the San Jacinto College South Campus Theatre Program produced two major shows and made long-lasting industry partnerships.
The first production, Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger's "Wilderness," features adolescents at the brink of emotional chaos in a wilderness therapy program. The theme of the semester was "adaptation," according to play director Laura Grayson.
"We had so many changes from the very beginning," said Grayson, adjunct theatre and film faculty member. "We couldn't have a live audience due to COVID-19 restrictions, and we weren't sure how we were going to continue."
Enter Stages Theatre, Houston's sixth largest nonprofit performing arts center. Stages not only allowed students to rehearse and perform in its arena theater but also introduced them to new technology.
"The technology [at Stages] made it possible to create rain on stage," Grayson said. "Our students experienced things that they wouldn't have at our own spaces."
During rehearsals, the "Wilderness" cast and crew got tested weekly for COVID-19 to ensure they were as safe as possible. Student Vana Salois became the group's COVID-19 code enforcer.
"We hadn't done anything like that before, so I took notes from the community and researched what Broadway and other theaters were doing to stay in compliance," Salois said. "We scaled down their operations for our smaller team. We even held auditions virtually to keep the restrictions up to code."
With a healthy and safe cast and crew, the next step was filming the play to share with an audience.
"I wanted the production to still feel like a play and not a film," said Frank Vela, theatre and film professor, whose Stages connections led to the partnership. "I didn't want heavy editing, but I wanted it to look nice."
Anthony Zavala, a student interested in film, headed the video production. The team used two cameras and alternated the shots.
Besides this production, Vela and his students hosted three San Jac Talks. These open discussions with the director, cast, crew, and San Jac counselors worked through difficult topics in "Wilderness." The team discussed transitioning, being a good ally, establishing healthy boundaries, and managing anxiety and depression.
"We felt these discussions would help familiarize students with the topics if they hadn't dealt with them before and helped us identify with our characters more deeply," said Gwyneth Templonuevo, theatre student.
Ending the semester, students produced a student independent project — fully creating, designing, operating, and performing a show.
Also hosted at Stages, their play, Andrew Bovell's "Things I Know to Be True," focuses on the importance of family and unexpectedness of life.
"I originally saw this play performed during a UIL One Act Play competition," said Drew Ford, the theatre student who directed the production. "I fell in love with the piece. The characters and dynamics between them were so authentic. It was a great experience, and it solidified my goal to be a director in the future."
Along with the San Jac team, University of Houston students Laur Hale and Claudia Pariselli joined the production and helped with set design.
"It was invaluable to have [their] set design experience," said Vela. "It gave me free time to focus on the technical aspects of the production."
Thanks to the Stages relationship, Ford, Salois, Templonuevo, and Zavala secured five-week internships with the theatre company. They worked on two different shows: the HITS project with Miller Outdoor Theater and "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."
"We had our hands on every part of the production," said Ford. "The staff were incredibly accommodating and welcomed us to ask questions."
Looking forward to the fall semester, Vela has plans to produce Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
"We really want to take our time and produce something great," said Vela. "COVID-19 has taught us to take a breath and slow down. Typically, in theatre, you have six weeks to produce a show. I want to really dig in on this one."
Audiences can look forward to "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in fall 2021 as well as a guest production of Murray Horwitz's "Ain't Misbehavin'" featuring the Phillip Hall Singers. To learn more about the San Jacinto College South Campus Theatre Program, visit sanjac.edu/theatre-south.