The Show Must Go On

With Rhinoceros, theatre department rethinks stagecraft in the era of social distancing.

By Robert Brigham | November 5, 2020

It was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Amid a global pandemic, a failing economy, police brutality, and raging wildfires, Reed theatre professor Kate Bredeson had her eye on something else. A rhinoceros. And not just any rhinoceros, but Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 masterpiece, slated to be the department’s fall production

Ionesco’s avant-garde play explores themes of racism, conformity, peer pressure, morality, and the normalization of absurd political movements (such as facism and nazism) in pre-WWII Europe. As many of these same themes are currently recurring in society—nationally and internationally—Rhinoceros was the perfect script to connect the audience and the cast with the troubling climate of today’s world. 

Except there is also a pandemic. And social distancing. Masks. Capacity limits. Seemingly insurmountable hurdles have materialized everywhere, but it was important to Prof. Bredeson (director) and her colleague Prof. Caitlin Cisek (scenographer) for the department to be creative, despite the many barriers. “There were two things driving the way we decided to produce this production,” she shares. “The first was that we wanted to explore what we could do with theatre in the pandemic that we couldn't do in person. We didn't want to make another Zoom play or audio drama, which are the two ways most theatres are responding to the pandemic this fall. We wanted to think about what technology allows us to do and the joy we could find making something truly new.” 

And that is exactly what is in store for guests this month. Beginning Friday, November 6, viewers will be able to experience Act I in an entirely new format: a podcast with accompanying images online. Act II will manifest as an on-screen graphic novel the following Friday, and Act III will culminate in a more traditional on-stage format (socially distanced for the actors and virtual for the viewers) the next week. While there may not be a proverbial curtain to raise—the production is completely online—the goal is to create a compelling experience. 

The cast and crew (which includes more than 40 students, staff, and faculty) have certainly bonded during the last two months, despite the fact that rehearsals for Rhinoceros were largely virtual. “I’ve been deeply moved by how much we've been able to build community, even as we've never all gathered in person and many of us have never even met outside of Zoom," Bredeson notes. “The ritual of coming together, of studying the text and rehearsing and laughing together, has been a balm during these hard months.”

At a virtual launch party last Friday, company members were moved to both tears and laughter as they shared the experiences they’ve had with Rhinoceros. It was a powerful demonstration, as Bredeson says, “that theatre builds community, that theatre matters, and that theatre can be a force to do good work in the world.” 

Click here to access the production.


Tags: Academics, Covid-19, Performing Arts