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Theatre production of The Memo, premiering Oct. 29, to have in-person audience

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Jake Procino

News Editor

Clarification added Oct. 29: Additional sentence added on audience safety protocols, premiere date corrected.

Students in lab coat costumes stand tall on stage.
Cast members of The Memorandum face where the crowd will be. Photo by Matthew Wesley.

The Willamette University Theatre production of The Memorandum (The Memo) by Vaclav Havel is planning to have an in-person audience, according to an email to the Theatre department from Jonathan Cole, the department chair.

The production, which is planned to run Oct. 29-Nov. 15, will have a 20-person audience limited to members of the Willamette University Community, according to the Theatre department’s [proposal] submitted to the Willamette Reopening Committee (ROC). This includes current students, faculty and staff, but does not extend to any guests such as partners or children. Audience members will be required to follow typical Willamette COVID-19 protocols which include wearing a face mask at all times, maintaining six feet physical distance from others and making reservations for contact tracing, along with other theatre-specific protocols. The [list of protocols] is posted around the M. Lee Pelton Theatre, in the program, on the [Theatre website] and is sent to the live audience members two days in advance. The proposal limits risk to student-employees by providing them with personal protective equipment such as face shields, limiting the number of students on shift at one time and having regular cleaning procedures.

Both Cole and the Director of The Memo, Professor of Theatre Susan Coromel, stressed in separate emails to the Collegian that the audience will present a low risk to the production. “The ROC approved us for an audience of 20. Our mainstage is designed to accommodate 200 people, and we've been assured that our air handling system is state of the art. [The] Facilities [Department] has been working very closely with us to ensure everyone's safety. The risk is the same as any in-person class offered this semester,” said Coromel.

Theatre students were not consulted in conversations at large about the decision to have a live audience, according to Production Stage Manager Sophia Leonard (’22) and Actor Clare “Lee” Lebeda (‘21). Cole confirmed, saying, “No, the students were not consulted, as it is not our practice to consult with students regarding our production schedule.”

Leonard and Lebeda both said that faculty communicated their intentions. “From the beginning the faculty made it clear that they were going to try to have a live audience,” said Leonard, though she notes that “Personally, I thought that all of Willamette’s campus would get shut down within the first three weeks.”

Leonard and Cole said that there are channels for student concerns. “We have created a reporting document for people to fill out… if people have a concern about what they see,” said Leonard. Leonard said the reporting tools, known as the [Concern Resolution Path], are posted all over the theater and available online.

Leonard, Lebeda, Coromel and Cole all said earlier this week that they were not aware of any specific concerns from theatre students. Coromel elaborated: “We have not heard any concerns from our cast and crew. In order for this to work, we have to all be on the same page and therefore we ask the cast and crew every night if there is anything that needs to change with the protocols we are all focused on making this project as safe and transparent as possible.”

The set on stage is of offices with transparent acrylic sheets for the walls
The set of The Memorandum, premiering on Oct. 29. Photo by Matthew Mahoney.

Prior to gaining approval to have a live audience, protocolssimilar to pandemic class protocolswere already in place for the production and rehearsals for The Memo. Leonard said theatre-specific protocols include limiting the handling of props to just the actors that use them, limiting the number of people in the theater at one time by spreading out work shifts and sanitizing workspaces regularly. Leonard added certain elements were designed to limit the risk of the infection, such as incorporating masks into the costumes and putting barriers on the stage. “It [the stage] looks like three blocks, so three separate rooms divided by walls. There's going to be some type of plastic that will be like dividing those walls as well, and these [look] like office spaces,” said Leonard.

Lebeda, who plays Andrew Gross, said that they and other actors have made adjustments while acting in masks. “I have to be a lot more intentional about breathing through my nose slowly, because if I'm breathing quickly, it's going to move the mask around,” said Lebeda, “I also have to project and enunciate a lot more.” Lebeda continued, saying the actors have to be more expressive through their bodies and vocal responses. “[We] might use ‘gasps’ or a ‘scoff’ or a ‘laugh’ at a certain place. If we didn't have the mask, we might be able to express that emotion with a full facial expression.”

Lebeda said the adjustments to COVID-19 have had their positives: production guidelines were adjusted so actors get longer breaks and communication between faculty and students has improved. “I would say it [communication] has significantly improved since my experience on previous shows. I also feel like the COVID[-19] protocols have forced us to be much more proactive about communication and much more consistent,” said Lebeda.

Despite the risk, the faculty and students generally believe there is a strong benefit to having a live audience. Cole said, “The MEMO is a comedy, and having a live audience will take the comedy to a level that is simply not reachable without the interplay of production and audience. We are also excited to bring this production to our on-campus community.”

Lebeda said that a live audience has a very palpable affect on the production, “There are a lot of benefits to having a live audience and, philosophically speaking, the whole point of live theater is the empathy that an audience is going to have comes from the fact that you are all human beings sharing the same space and breathing the same air.” While acknowledging the benefits of a live audience, Lebeda said: “I have worked so long on this show without an audience or without people coming to physically see it, that I don’t particularly feel a connection or a need for audience reactions. This is a show that I think doesn't need them, if that makes sense. It's a dark comedy, but it's not a “ha ha” laugh-out-loud comedy. And any of the humor is humor that I already find in it. I don't need an audience to validate it for me.”

Originally, the production was scheduled to be a Shakespearean play, as the Theatre department usually produces one every four years. Coromel said that with the onset of the pandemic, The Memo was much easier to produce because Shakespeare's plays usually have themes that require intimate actions from actors that are impossible to do during a pandemic.

Coromel said that The Memo is an important play for our time: “The play's setting in a factious office where communication has come to a standstill. The play is about the dehumanizing effects of a new office language forced on its workers. The goal of the language is to take human identity out of communication. The play was originally produced in 1968 in Prague and depicts life in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The protocols lend to the alienation that characters feel as they navigate the bureaucracy of this office culture.”

Lebeda feels the show is being put on at the right time: “This play is very much about the dangers of business as usual. And I feel like Willamette University has very strongly pushed an agenda of business as usual and has not given ample room for students to fully experience the humanity of multiple crises and tragedies that have occurred on campus. And that's a very difficult attitude to maintain. But what I appreciate about this show is that it ends on a note of kindness, and of a reminder that there is more to life than work. That a bureaucracy cannot hold the human experience because bureaucracy is in-human. And that human experience and its totality is more important than work.”

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