Over the past two weekends, DramaTech, Tech’s student-run theatre company, managed to successfully pull off what many have attempted but have accomplished since the onset of pandemic: an immersive, virtual, live theatre performance. With a cast of only five but a crew of over 50, DramaTech delivered a quirky interpretation of “45 Plays for 45 Presidents.”
The play by Karen Weinberg, Chloe Johnson, Genevra Gallo-Bayaites, Sean Benjamin and Andrew Bayiates takes viewers through a rapid-fire history of the U.S. presidential office. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes confusing, “45 Plays for 45 Presidents” examines the past in an effort to untangle the future.
“It’s been an adjustment,” said DramaTech President and actress Gracelyn Nguyen, “but being able to continue our mission of engineering theatre is something that we can hold onto amidst the uncertainty.”
Performing arts of any kind are close to impossible right now, but DramaTech did not let COVID-19 stop them. Although the audience watched the performances from the comfort of their homes, the cast performed every show live while still doing their part to keep everyone involved safe.
DramaTech borrowed unused office spaces so that each actor could perform in their own separate room, with custom backgrounds built by a talented team of carpenters and designers. Cast and crew communicated via a comms system so that they could adhere to the building’s ten-person limit. In addition to the usual technicians, designers and engineers, a streaming technician set up the cameras, cables and video streams while a streaming designer wrote the cues and decided which videos went where when.
“There were a lot of opportunities to cut corners with safety,” said Production Manager Charlotte Parkes, “but we did it the hard way to set a good example for the campus.”
Beyond the logistical challenges of creating a virtual experience was the difficulty of telling a story between actors who were all in separate spaces. Each of the five members of the cast played an array of different presidents, regardless of race and gender, and doubled as the background cast in the meantime. In order to effectively distinguish between characters, a wide array of props and costume pieces were handed on and off “stage” regularly, including most notably the star-spangled coat representing the presidency.
But despite the challenges and gimmicks raised by a virtual format, the DramaTech cast were still able to capture the charm of live theatre. “Acting is still possible,” said Nguyen, “and I’ve had so much fun with my four castmates in finding our chemistry and what makes the show great.”
As with any show, the unsung hero of “45 Plays for 45 Presidents” was the outstanding work of the crew. Each of the five intricate sets was built so that on a screen of five rectangles, every actor’s background was similar but different. The sound was meticulously engineered to emulate a live performance, while the lighting and graphic design took advantage of the virtual format with interesting effects and imagery. Most of the show’s graphic elements were created by DramaTech students.
Even the smallest details of costuming were significant: the five star-spangled jackets, each worn by the actor playing the president, were all made to fit the size of one single actor. On the rest of the cast, it didn’t look quite right, representing the archetypes we have for our presidents and the ways they may or may not live up to that expectation.
“I’m really, really proud of all the people who came together to work on this show and how resilient and creative they have been in solving problems that no one in theater ever thought they would have,” said Parkes.
Performed less than a month before the 2020 presidential election, both cast and crew of DramaTech agree that “45 Plays for 45 Presidents” is an appropriate look back on history.
As Nguyen said it is a study “of where we’ve come from and where we need to go.” DramaTech chose to use the last few minutes of the show to encourage viewers to vote, bearing in mind both the past and future of the country.
“This is the most important election so far in our lives,” said actor Diego Varela, “and it’s important to understand the history of this country (both the good and bad) and have open dialogue about it.”
Founded in 1947, DramaTech is the South’s oldest performing arts company. Every performance in the troupe’s full season of musicals and plays is produced, acted and designed entirely by Georgia Tech students.
“Dramatech has been my home at GT,” said Jacob Parks, lighting designer and light board operator. “They’ve supported me through ups and downs of college life, and encouraged me to reach further in all parts of my life.”
Join DramaTech for their virtual Fall Festival for fun activities on Oct. 16 and 17. The events feature a Virtual Variety Show with performances from across the Tech community on Friday at 8:00 p.m. and a cook-along and movie screening on Saturday at 7:00 p.m.