It’s not easy committing a full Shakespearean play to memory, but the students at Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art rose to the challenge, learning every line of the Bard’s Measure for Measure, word for word. The performance was highly anticipated by students and staff alike, but these plans were thwarted when the coronavirus caused the school to shut down in mid-March.
The revelation that all their hard work was for naught led to several sleepless nights for Eleanor Holdridge, associate professor and chair of the Department of Drama and director of the play. Then, in a moment of inspiration, she decided that the play could still commence, but it needed a change of venue.
“… I woke up thinking about our Measure for Measure, grieving for the loss of the wonderful time we would have had in the room working together. And, of course, thinking about a way to move forward.”
Holdridge assembled her 17 cast members and limited crew to run lines over internet calls, and even organized a “dress rehearsal” prior to recording the play. While it wasn’t exactly what the students had signed up for, they found some creative ways to accomplish things like attire. The costume designer actually had the cast give virtual tours of their wardrobes so they could find something that might look appropriate.
The students seemed to have a bit of fun with it, although they did note that the medium was less than ideal. In an interview with WUSA9, lead actress Marie Kottenstette noted some of the jarring obstacles the cast had to overcome:
“You’re reacting to someone who’s not in the same room as you, and you also can see your own face, which is weird because normally you can’t see your own face when you’re acting,” she said. “You have no one to feed off of except for the scene partner that’s on the screen next to you. You almost have to imagine that the audience is there.”
Nevertheless, the actors came together for a wonderful, unique performance that is sure never to be recreated. While the viewer definitely notices the absence of staging, the acting, recitation, and reactions are all there. It is certainly worth a watch for any Shakespeare fan, or fans of theater who sorely miss their favored art form.
Measure for Measure, written between 1603-1604, is about an aspiring nun, Isabella, who pleads with a powerful ruler to save her incarcerated brother from the death penalty. She is offered a deal by the ruler: If she goes to bed with him, he will save her brother. As she negotiates a moral path through the situation, she finds the strength to forge her voice and identity.
Holdridge admitted that the virtual performance seems to run counter to the traditions of stage performances, which rely much on the audience’s reactions. She suggests however, that continuing with the production, even in isolation, was a valuable lesson to the students in determination, preparing them to work for an industry in which the show must always go on.
“We may not be creating the same thing,” Holdridge said. “But to me at least we’re all getting together and working on something together and creating a product.”
The entire performance is available to view on YouTube, in two parts. The first part is featured above, and we have attached the second part below.