Adaptability and the HACC Theatre’s Evolution in the Era of COVID-19

As the HACC Theatre prepares to perform “The Time Machine,” director Dave Olmstead shares his insights on the unusual production process.

Ruth Fluharty, Staff Writer

On Oct. 29, Oct. 30, and Oct. 31, the HACC Theatre will be presenting a production of “The Time Machine,” a radio play adapted from the H.G. Wells novel of the same name.

The play was originally meant to run in April 2020 but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and campus closures. Now, after much adaptation and ingenuity, the play will be performed and streamed remotely. I had the chance to sit down with Professor David Olmstead, the director of the play, and learn a bit more about the unusual production process.

“It’s very different from anything I, the students, or the other faculty for that matter, have done,” Olmstead says. “You know, traditionally we meet in a theatre and get up and warm up physically and vocally and move around, and all of that is gone. It’s been a matter of adapting because there’s a certain amount of energy one loses when they sit. We’ve worked on keeping that energy up and our posture, as well. Once in a while, I have to tell an actor, ‘Hey, you’re kind of starting to tip down and go off-camera. They need to keep an eye on that because we have become a little bit more cinematic.

“Normally when you’re at the theatre, the audience can look and see different things. Now, they can see you very up close and personal and you have to be aware of that. You have to be very aware of the clarity of your voice and your eye contact so that you’re looking at the camera and not at someone else on the screen. Everyone’s kind of relearning and developing a new style of acting.”

The cast and crew have also spent a lot of time arranging a cohesive set-up that looks good on Zoom. “All of the actors were given sheets of black fabric that they’ve hung behind them,” Olmstead says. “Then, our lighting designer worked with each of them on lighting placement on their faces and behind them for a backlight. There’s a consistency that looks similar to the actor that is on stage in front of the black curtain and a tie-in there.”

In many ways, the actors are functioning as their own crews throughout this production. They’re serving as their own lighting techs, set builders, makeup artists, and more. For example, Olmstead says, “We ask, ‘Hey, can you adjust your microphone? Can you go into settings and adjust it to this?’ Everyone is playing multiple roles, in that sense.”

The new experience has left everyone in theatre, from experienced casts and crews to beginners, scrambling to find solutions to the unique set of problems quarantines present. Olmstead has prioritized learning through the successes and failures of other productions. He says, “Since this all started, I’ve been watching as many online theatre pieces as I can, both good and bad, because that’s how you learn! You learn, ‘Oh wow, they did that. We’re not gonna do that,’ or ‘That was kind of interesting how they worked it out this way.’”

Up until the pandemic, radio plays were steadily declining in popularity. Now, many theaters around the world are choosing to put on these voice-centered, wholly customizable plays. They often vary greatly from production to production as they can be performed with action on a live stage, through sound only, or in this case, over a Zoom webinar with much of the cast remaining at home throughout their performances.

On the main stage at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center on Harrisburg’s campus, there will be a small crew and one actor. This actor is both the “radio host” of the show and the foley artist, which is one of the most crucial aspects of a radio play. Foley artists are responsible for many of the sound effects in both stage and film environments and are especially important in radio plays.

Olmstead explains, “The foley artist is making all of the sound effects. If someone’s running through the forest, he’s got a pair of shoes on his feet and he’s running over some leaves and gravel. If someone strikes a match, he’s running a piece of wood over sandpaper to get that sound. We have this little, mini door we constructed that he opens and closes when someone goes in or out of a room.”

The work of the foley artist combined with the performances of the actors results in a uniquely immersive experience, with or without the visuals. “When you see [a radio play] it’s cool to watch, but when you don’t see it, you really believe it’s all there because you’re creating the picture in your mind. It’s like reading a novel or listening to a book on tape,” Olmstead says.

However, having members of the production present on the Harrisburg campus has resulted in its own set of problems. Due to campus regulations, all students within the facility must keep their masks on throughout the production. Given that the announcer and foley artist will be on camera for the entire show, this presented the team with a new challenge: how do you explain one actor wearing a mask when none of the others are?

After some deliberation, the cast and crew have come up with a unique, fourth wall-preserving solution to this problem. “The actors [at home] are going be wearing masks in the beginning,” says Olmstead. “It’s a radio play set in 1947, so we’re focusing it on the Polio pandemic that was right near the end of that. We have a little segment at the beginning where the host/foley artist will announce, “Hey, all of the actors have been safely secured in private sound booths. Actors, you may remove your masks,” and they’re going to take theirs off. [The foley artist] has to leave his on because he’s on campus, but he’ll explain that because he’s in the studio with other people, for safety reasons, he’s going to leave his on.”

This somewhat meta solution to the issue of masks sets a great tone for the rest of the show, which is a sci-fi classic. Originally written as a short story by H.G. Wells before being adapted for the radio by John de Lancie of Star Trek fame, the story follows a British time traveler as he journeys into the future. As he soon discovers, the future of the human race is far from what he’d anticipated. He is forced to navigate an unfamiliar earth as he interacts with the new human race, makes some enemies, and struggles to find his way home.

Modern problems require modern solutions, and the upcoming performance of “The Time Machine” is no exception. This remote production will be a first for every member of the cast, crew, and the HACC Theatre department. However, their determination, creativity, and passion for their art is sure to make this production an unforgettable experience. Support community theater and the arts here at HACC by checking out what is sure to be a theatre experience like no other.

“The Time Machine” premieres over Zoom on Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. There will be two other performances: Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for a single stream or $15 for the whole family with up to twenty devices! Get your tickets here.