A Conversation with Schuster Theatre Director Alaina Manchester: Navigating Communication and the Arts Amid COVID-19
Alaina Manchester, director of performing and visual arts at the Schuster Theatre
Like many areas across the University, Gannon’s School of Communication and the Arts and Schuster Theatre encountered unique challenges to traditional ways of delivering student experiences with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this March.
But innovation and out-of-the-box thinking have always been defining traits of our faculty and students within these programs – and over the past months, they’ve only become all the more apparent.
Alaina Manchester, director of performing and visual arts at the Schuster Theatre, took some time to share a little about how she and her colleagues and students in the School of Communication and the Arts and Schuster Theatre have navigated the pandemic to ensure that real-world academic and theatre experiences remain at center stage for students in these programs.
We’re delighted to share insights from Manchester in the conversation below.
Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges that you have experienced in Gannon’s School of Communication and the Arts as a result of COVID-19?
“How do you tell stories when you can’t be in the same room as the audience or as each other?” That has been the number one problem on our minds. This is a novel virus so it is new and we are learning daily about what kind of precautions we should be taking. Theatre is the ultimate team sport and it takes time to develop a piece. We need to plan these productions months in advance, so we were really working to fly the plane as we were building it this summer and early fall. Luckily, we now have a few productions in the time of COVID under our belts and so we are learning new ways and technologies to continue to do what we do best, which is connect with each other through stories.
Q: How have you been able to adapt to overcome those challenges and continue offering opportunities for students?
We have been able to partner with local artists and tap into new technologies to find solutions to these current restrictions. We have been able to incorporate film into our productions as well as virtual theatre, leaning into staged readings and devising to create new theatrical forms. We were able to turn various closets and old office spaces in our theatre building into virtual Zoom rooms, which were basically the equivalent of six black-box theatre/tv studios, complete with their own cameras, mics, lighting and scenery.
Q: In what ways has the Schuster Theatre had to adapt to continue its production series?
Everything right now is about innovation and flexibility. We are continuing to explore important stories and give our students the opportunity to create new characters and worlds using the virtual medium. We are looking for pieces that work well with in this virtual medium as well as creating our own pieces. We are no strangers to devising new work – we created APE/ESSENCE, which we developed in 2017 and brought to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to compete, and we are currently developing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth titled SISTERS WYRD, which we were planning on taking over the summer to the arts festival and are now setting our sights on Summer ’21. Our next production, which we devised, is currently being filmed and will be projected onto our theatre building as well as livestreamed on November 12-14th on our Facebook page.
Q: What are some new, creative approaches to theatre production that you’ve adopted due to the pandemic and might use moving forward?
We are going to continue exploring these Zoom rooms and see if there is a way to marry the use of live theatre with filmed pieces. We are also going to hopefully – as we know more about COVID and how to best respond – attempt outdoor theatre. We are looking into a traveling pageant wagon for the spring!
Q: What unique opportunities can your audiences look forward to coming up?
LOVE NOTES, which is an original, devised, filmed piece explores what theatre means to those of us who cannot enter the building right now. It explores identity and how the current restrictions, for some, offer new freedoms of expression. We will be projecting this piece onto a huge screen which we will be hanging on our theatre façade. Audiences are welcome to come watch the live projections (with social distancing and masks, of course) as well as viewing the piece streamed to our Facebook page.
Q: As a director, what have you learned from this experience?
I am constantly amazed by the resiliency of our students and the flexibility of my peers. We will continue to do what drives us; we will just do it in a different way until we can all meet in the same place and breathe the same air again.
Manchester said she is thankful to local Erie artists and vendors, Britty Lea of brittylea.com, Grise Audio Visual, and FastSigns, whose technical expertise and support have made production within the Schuster Theatre possible.
“The ‘theatre is the ultimate team sport’ came from my Technical Director Angela Howell, and she is brilliant and has really made all of this happen with her hard work, dedication and brilliant attitude,” Manchester added.
Learn more about Gannon University’s Schuster Theatre and upcoming events, as well as School of Communication and the Arts program opportunities, at schustertheatre.com
Learn more about the Schuster Theatre's upcoming performance, "Love Notes," which will be projected on the side of the building at https://www.gannon.edu/shareworthydetail.aspx?id=959