Julia Avila ’21, a liberal studies major and musical theatre minor, had acted in every musical and play at CUI in her three years as an undergraduate. But coming into the 2020-21 school year, because of COVID restrictions placed by the state and county, she thought her acting career at CUI might have ended prematurely.
“I love theatre and really wanted to complete the circle with a musical in my senior year,” Avila says. “I was really worried we wouldn’t be able to do a musical at all.”
So was theatre professor Lori Siekmann, who searched for solutions to create a worthwhile artistic experience for both cast and audience, without the usual freedoms. What she found was a “concert version” of the theatre production “Bright Star,” a bluegrass musical co-written by actor-comedian-banjo player Steve Martin and pop singer Edie Brickell. Concert versions omit acting scenes, stringing together musical numbers with a thread of narration to keep the plot going. Common in the world of theatre, concert versions became more popular in the midst of last year’s restrictions.
“The students were so hungry for anything,” Siekmann says. “They just wanted to do be able to sing. There was excitement about this.”
The plan was to film the modified musical and offer it online in the spring. Auditions were held in November over Zoom, wherever students happened to be.
“Auditioning from my childhood bedroom was not something I envisioned doing in my senior year,” Avila says, laughing. She hung a gray blanket over her closet to provide a background, and recorded an audition on her iPad.
“To get the right angle, I had to stack my iPad on all my books,” she says. “I was nervous because I don’t have the higher-tech equipment to make it a show-stopping audition. I thought, ‘This is one of the strangest auditions I’ve ever done.’ But I was stoked that we were going to have opportunities to do anything. I was feeling super-blessed.”
Self-taping auditions turned out to be a valuable education for many students, Siekmann says. “It’s like a business card for actors, so it was a good learning process,” she says. “We had a lot of conversations about, where do you place the camera? If you have too much headroom, it’s distracting, or if you have a weird background or bad lighting. So many things can distract the viewer from what you’re doing.”
The cast then learned their music — 24 songs, total — over Zoom, and soon was rehearsing together on campus, outside.
“The first time we were able to hear each other sing as a group, to hear the harmonies, we all about cried,” says Siekmann.
The professional-level recording studio in the Borland-Manske Center opened up avenues to record all student vocals to accompany the fully-orchestrated tracks which the rightsholder provides. Over spring break, students went into the recording studio, using multiple isolation booths, to record their acting lines and vocals. The idea was to lip-synch everything, spoken or sung, on the day of filming. “We practiced and practiced because we didn’t want it to look like a badly lip-synched movie,” Siekmann says. “It was cool to learn how to lip-synch properly, because that’s a skill you need in the film industry, though it’s usually done the other way around.”
Avila, who played lead character Mama Murphy, said recording their vocals and lip-synching their lines in advance “was insane, one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and also one of the most difficult.”
“We had to match ourselves, and do multiple takes [when filming] to get our pronunciation right and stop on our S's and T's, ” she says.
The effect was ultimately convincing. “When my family watched the musical, they asked, ‘Did you guys really not speak?’” Avila says.
The stage set-up for the film shoot had each actor standing at separate microphones, with lead singers for each song stepping forward to a row of microphones in the front. The circumstance required students to act while singing, without relating directly to one another.
“They couldn’t rely on tons of blocking,” Siekmann says. “They had to learn how to connect with the material and feel the presence of the person next to them even though they couldn’t see them.”
Siekmann, too, had her learning curve. Accustomed to directing students in live space, she had to limit her viewpoint to the monitor showing what the cameras were capturing. Auspiciously, CUI is introducing a film emphasis this fall, and in advance of that, students were learning to run technical equipment and act for the camera. This meant learning protocols of a film set — such as “action” and “cut” — and for actors, it meant learning to act for a camera, not a seated audience.
We all came together with a vision of, ‘This is going to be good, in spite of all these obstacles.’
“We had to get used to that waist-up acting, with camera angles and facial expressions,” Avila says. “That was a unique experience. Musical theatre acting is so different from film acting. Film has smaller reactions because the camera’s catching it.”
Going into their two-day film shoot, Siekmann confesses to being “a bit terrified. I felt a lot of pressure to get the shots we needed.”
Once they began rolling through the 24 songs, they found a rhythm and finished nearly everything in one day. The bluegrass musical presents a fictionalized, heartwarming story based on a supposedly true story about a baby who survived being thrown from a train. It is set in the 1940s and flashes back to earlier times.
“After we got done, that was our moment,” Siekmann says. “We got the feels. As soon as we were done we said, ‘Oh, my gosh, we did a thing! We made a movie!’” They had come a long way from “wondering if we would all have to be in little squares on Zoom,” she says.
In a longstanding tradition of ending every show at CUI by pointing up to God, they ended the shoot with student-actors singing the encore and pointing upward together on the last note. “We want to thank God for our talents and give God the glory,” Siekmann says. “You can clap for us, but in the end it’s all about him.”
For actors, it felt a little strange to complete a show that nobody had yet seen. The emotional response of audience members was delayed until the show ran online two weekends in May.
For cast and crew, a second payoff came when Siekmann reserved the DeNault Auditorium on campus and projected the final product onto two big screens, so that the cast and crew could do a final review. “I cried when I saw it,” says Avila. “I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were to still be able to do the show. I was so proud of us and beyond humbled by the entire experience.” Limited to an online audience, the unique effort did make it possible for out-of-town viewers to enjoy the production.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has loved it and can’t believe they were lip-synching,” says Siekmann. “We didn’t just make the best of it, we did something I’m really proud of, and we learned a lot of things we wouldn’t otherwise have learned.”
Avila says students were “ridiculously blessed to use everything Concordia could offer. We used the recording studio, and our own theatre. This experience was so special. We all came together with a vision of, ‘This is going to be good, in spite of all these obstacles.’”