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WVPB helps WVU theatre students perform through pandemic

WVU actors are filmed by WVPB crew

With restrictions on gathering in place due to the global pandemic, many performances came to a halt in the West Virginia University School of Theatre & Dance. The school teamed up with West Virginia Public Broadcasting to produce King Lear, which will be broadcast across the state later this year.

“Performing and production is an essential component of theatre curriculum,” said Jerry McGonigle, professor of acting and directing. “For our seniors, this is their capstone project, and for graduate students, it’s their thesis project, so it was important to be able to host this production.”

WVU actors in King Lear

Typically, WVU School of Theatre & Dance productions run for two weeks, with hundreds of community members and school children attending in person. Without that option, it made sense to broadcast King Lear.

“West Virginia Public Broadcasting has the huge and important mission of educating, so we see this as an opportunity to not only put on a Shakespeare play for our students, but to be able to reach children and teachers throughout the whole state,” McGonigle said. “We are developing educational materials to package with the broadcast, so we really see this as a collaboration for the education of all West Virginians.”

Behind the Scenes of the filming of King Lear

To make King Lear TV ready, the School of Theatre & Dance created a TV studio out of the Gladys Theater in WVU’s Loulie, William and Valerie Canady Creative Arts Center. The cast, crew and production team have spent the last three months rehearsing, performing and shooting their version of Shakespeare’s classic piece.

“We are approaching this production more like a TV production, and less like a play,” McGonigle said. “We’re taking every single scene and shooting it separately and independently, which brings its own challenges. Our theatre design and technology students had to build a set that adds flexibility and can be reconfigured and moved around so the camera could be anywhere in the theater shooting.”

Actors sit on set in masks to protect against COVID-19

Actors in the play started their rehearsals last year, working with McGonigle to dig into the text and rework it for TV, while keeping the story clear and concise.

“In our production, King Lear is a female and two of the other characters in the play that are traditionally male are also played by females,” McGonigle said. “It’s an interesting twist that lends itself to some of the themes of the play.”

Strict COVID-19 protocols have been in place for the production of King Lear using standards set by WVU and a film and production industry multi-union report.

An actor stands in front of cameras

“WVU has been incredibly supportive of our efforts and made it possible for everyone involved with King Lear to be tested for COVID three times a week,” McGonigle said. “We take temperatures, wear masks and have tried to create a bit of a bubble for the entire team while filming is happening.”

Even with all the added challenges, McGonigle says the effort is worth it to round out the student experience at WVU.

“We have really gone all out on this production and the students are getting an experience that I can’t say I’ve seen from any other university during this pandemic,” McGonigle said. “These students are getting a real window into the world of production and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting crew has been incredible with our students. Their level of professionalism in doing their jobs while showing our students the ropes has been great to watch.”