September 3, 2020 | By Chuck Carlson
The latest play to be performed by the Albion College Theatre Department this month will provide more than actors and set designs and a dramatic story.
It will be a catharsis, a deep breath, a nod to what can be again and a statement that life, while nowhere near normal in these days of pandemic, is still to be appreciated and cherished and embraced.
“It says we’re back and we’re safe together,” says Zach Fischer, assistant professor and chair of the Theatre Department and the force behind Albion’s fall production of Detroit ’67.
But while the play remains the thing, it still must pay heed to the times. And that includes masks and social distancing—and understanding that normal these days is a relative term.
Still, Fischer, who selected the play by Detroit native Dominique Morisseau last winter before the world fell apart, said it best: “The show must go on.”
“I realized an indoor production was not a possibility this fall,” he says. “It’s kind of a blur now but that became clear early on. I didn’t like the idea of actors in masks and we couldn’t build sets or do the technical work since it would require too many people. The wheels came off every time we tried to game it out.”
Then the idea hit him: An outdoor production.
He met with President Mathew Johnson in early July with what he called a “pie-in-the-sky idea” about holding the play outside, with the front of Kresge Gymnasium as the stage and with an audience watching, safely, on the Quad.
“I said to Dr. Johnson, ‘If you like this idea, I’ve got a lot of work to do,’” Fischer says with a laugh. “He loved the idea and I started circling the wagons.”
And now, if all goes well, on September 18-20 Detroit ’67, with five actors who will maintain social distance while using wireless microphone packs, will perform for an audience that will be appropriately distanced. The play will start at 7 p.m. and admission is free.
“It will feel elegant and organic in a way that you don’t feel like you’re watching a socially distant production,” Fischer says.
The play will be directed by another Detroit native—K. Edmonds, a resident company member of actor Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre Co. in Chelsea—and will feature students Jessica Neal, ’21; Alyssa Andrews, ’23; Carlton L. Williams, ’23; Sean Bonner, ’21; and Elena Mourad, ’23.
Auditions were held online last spring and the first rehearsals were conducted remotely beginning in mid-August. Once classes began August 24, the cast moved rehearsing to the Quad five nights a week for three hours.
“We had no idea what the fall would look like,” Fischer says. “We’d already committed to the play and gotten the rights, so we decided let’s go ahead and we’ll figure it out.”
Of course, the main concern is keeping everyone safe, Fischer emphasizes. That’s why circles will be drawn on the grass, separated by six feet at least, for groups who know each other and can feel safe as they gather to watch.
Those who attend are encouraged to bring blankets or folding chairs. In truth, though, the entire Quad will be open for people to watch. The actors will maintain their social distance on stage and will not be wearing masks.
“We’ve choreographed this within an inch of our lives,” Fischer says. “I stole the circle idea from (New York’s) Central Park. So if you have suitemates you know and are comfortable with, you can be in the same pod.
“The plan at present is to allow the public to come as long as they respect the distance,” he continues. “We’re going to have theatre students serve as ushers and ask if people are together. We wanted to get a handle on keeping some sense of order on the lawn, and people will be able to hear it and see it from anywhere on the Quad.”
Albion’s decision to go ahead with a fall production in the middle of a pandemic has stunned some of his fellow collegiate theatre department heads.
“I told one college what we were doing,” Fischer says, “and they said, ‘You guys are doing what?’ What’s basically happened is we were able to do this because we cast in April and have been designing and working all summer, where most programs are starting from scratch at the beginning of the school year. We’re pretty excited we were able to get our ducks in a row. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”
And that’s the major cloud hanging over the production. Fischer knows, as do the administration and students, that a ramp-up in COVID-19 infection on campus could change everything.
As well, performing outdoors in the sometimes finicky Michigan weather could be a challenge. If there are weather issues, the shows will be rescheduled for the following weekend of September 25-27. If it rains during a performance, decisions will be made at the time, Fischer says.
The play itself is amazingly topical, focusing on an African American brother and sister and the race riot that broke out in Detroit in 1967. And it’s especially relevant after America’s traumatic spring and summer that has seen racial turmoil and protests in Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wis., Minneapolis and many other places.
“When I read the play it blew my mind,” Fischer recalls. “It was the most exciting thing I’d read in a year or two. After I finished I said, ‘This is the perfect play for us.’ It’s a fantastic story and it’s important.”
It’s a story taking place during a challenging time and maybe that’s all the more reason for it to be performed, because, as Fischer sees it, sometimes you just need to see the show go on.
“A lot can happen,” he says. “It feels like we’ve been doing this for six months but I think it’s a really hopeful thing. And if it goes off, it will be a really nice moment for theatre and for our campus and community who have been missing the experience of live performance. I hope people are inspired by it.”