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By Zoom, the show must go on

There was no applause, laughter, gasps, sniffling or hushed silences. In fact, there was no feedback of any kind, not counting the sound loop version.

In a world in which every pause is digitally pregnant before the all-seeing eyes and all-hearing microphones of smartphones and laptops, 16 brave students from Ashland High School’s Theatre 2 class managed to produce a play Tuesday while sheltering in place.

Performed via Zoom, the 30-minute production titled “4.0” was one of two tag-team efforts between theater students at Ashland High School and Spotswood High School of New Jersey. Two weeks ago, students from Spotswood High performed a play titled “Pay Attention” written by Ashland High students, and AHS returned the favor Tuesday with “4.0,” a play about a student who plagiarizes a group project to protect her GPA.

The collaboration was organized by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. The organization works with 13 schools across the nation to develop new playwrights. AHS has participated since 1997, but Tuesday’s performance was the school’s first virtual attempt and perhaps its most theatrically challenging.

While COVID-19 restrictions may have limited the size and scope of the production, those limits hardly simplified things for the students charged with making it happen. If anything, the pandemic’s constraints complicated matters for AHS students, who handled every aspect of the show from set design and background photos to music, sound cues and, of course, acting.

“It’s very interesting to look on the screen and see whoever I’m talking to react,” said Hadley Jungst, a 17-year-old AHS junior who played the part of Elijah, a sarcastic ex-boyfriend. “But it’s very fun. It’s definitely a new way of acting, and I tried to bring in the character as much as I could with what I had. It’s a lot like being on camera, and the cues are different.”

To do that, Jungst explained, the actor must — after exiting “off stage” — quickly mute their mic. Timing is important here because technical difficulties such as lagging video are part of the equation.

“You have to be careful about turning your camera on and off when you speak and what noise is in the background,” Jungst said, recalling a rehearsal. “I was by a highway, so there are lots of rushing cars going by and wind through the windows. It’s like your own personal stage, your home, and you’re very much responsible for it.”

Many of the production’s technical challenges landed in the lap of Lily Whittle, a 15-year-old freshman who served as the “4.0” set designer. Ordinarily, Whittle would have spent the past few weeks organizing the physical space of each scene. Imagination, creativity, visual awareness — these are the skills a set designer must possess. But how does one bring a scene to life virtually?

It was up to Whittle to answer that question, which she did with the help of AHS theater and English teacher Betsy Bishop. And Google.

“It’s pretty weird,” she said. “(Bishop) had me do a drawing of how it would be if we were actually in school and we could use the space, and how we would do the set changes. Then she also wanted me to incorporate that into the actual Zoom, so we’re just finding different pictures — the closest thing that we can find to what the scenes would actually be and then putting that as a virtual background on my profile during the performance.”

Whittle needed to track down pictures of a basement, a waiting room and an office, and was responsible for making sure each appeared as the background at the appropriate time during the production, which was viewed by 45 people. Preparation was crucial, since one of the few traits the Zoom production shared with the theater version was the lack of a safety net — “4.0” was recorded live, no do-overs.

And while the actors had several rehearsals, Whittle, who was working on her first play, was limited to a single run-through to work out the kinks of 17 set changes.

“I have a cue sheet with the places where I have to change it,” she said prior to showtime.

The production received a surprise boost by a pair of professional actors and AHS alums who agreed to play a couple key roles. Jeremy Johnson played Mr. Carp, a “strict but fair” history teacher, and Josh Houghton played Atticus Taylor, a guidance counselor who tries too hard to be the cool adult in the room.

Neither phoned it in. Houghton’s introduction rap in the opening scene, in fact, was so off-the-wall corny it nearly caused Jungst to lose it.

Houghton, an equity actor who lives in Chicago, said he was happy to help out his former drama teacher, and he had the time since the musical he was set to perform in, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” became a COVID-19 casualty a week before opening night.

“It’s been kind of fun to sit in my living room and try and put on a play,” he said Monday. “I have nothing going on, so it’s fun to get to work on something.

“I guess it’s been an adjustment coming from stage acting, but acting’s acting, so hopefully good acting on stage equals good acting on camera. I’m crossing my fingers. It’s a little funky to be sitting in my mom’s basement, because I’m out here quarantining in Oregon. You’re just doing some silly stuff to dead silence.”

Tuesday’s performance was only the latest noteworthy Zoom event for Bishop, whose busy month included an appearance on the show “Artists in Conversation,” during which she posed questions to none other than Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Bishop credited the students with making the most of a tough situation. Acting before a screen is not the same as acting before an audience, she said, but her students jumped in with both feet because the show must go on.

“There were some good things about it, and then there were some funky things about it,” she said. “But you know, it is what it is because it’s a weirdo year.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Screen capture photoAshland High students, teachers, advisors and other members of the production staff talk Tuesday about the virtual play “4.0” shortly after performing the 30-minute drama via Zoom.