O brave new world
Finding the positives in tempestuous times
You’ve spent two months and much energy rehearsing for the Senior Musical, then a pandemic arrives and destroys any chance of performing it live. What do you do? Well, turn it into a film. David Dunn diarises the challenges the production team had to meet in the face of stringent COVID-19 restrictions.
I write this on a Monday morning in late July – while the detail and the emotion are still fresh in the memory – after an intense weekend of filming Glen Waverley’s 2020 Senior Musical, a musical production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
It’s an interesting moment in time, a largely unprecedented, unsettling and strangely exhilarating historical moment. Certainly, I can’t remember anything like it in my life and my teaching career spanning 45 years. COVID-19 is now a part of the fabric of our lives. As teachers, we hold to the premise that it is our fundamental responsibility that in looking after the wellbeing of our students, we inspire optimism and belief in the brightest of futures even in seemingly dark times. We had rehearsed from the middle of January with an anticipated mid-March performance season. Public health restrictions prohibited that, but cast and crew accepted this as a challenge: let’s make a film instead.
I put the scenario to our Deputy Principal and Head of Campus, Richard Brenker, thoroughly expecting him to say no. He listened to the case for filming the production, adhering to strict protocols: anyone feeling ill must not attend, temperature checks would be mandatory, hand sanitising and appropriate distancing, face masks for musicians where appropriate.
Thankfully, his response was ‘Love it!’
There was never a doubt that all those people who go to making up the production team would embrace the philosophy and the concept. Maintenance men Jarrod and Geoff, Dave and Ozzie built the set. Rob Savedra and Craig Johnson chopped down trees that would line the perimeter of the constructed set. Steve Glover was there on Friday evening to paint and dress it. Clear Systems, under the guidance of Daniel Bowen, rigged and focused the lights, Carlos prepared for the audio recordings. Reshaping of the choreography began in earnest.
There were apologies from parents and cast members. Some of the cast were awaiting test results and couldn’t attend. We redistributed roles. Tamsyn Sollier-Smith was one of those awaiting results. Consequently, Yumi Sollier-Smith, her mum and one of our choreographers, couldn’t attend. Challenge!
Day 1: Friday evening
I entered M27. The cast was taking its direction from Emily Condon standing on a chair holding a laptop with Yumi on Zoom giving instruction to the movement for ‘The Show Must Go On.’ Surreal and sublime!
With the paint still wet on the seaweed-covered baby grand piano, we were off and running at 8pm on the dot. By this stage, Owen James, my assistant, had taken complete control if proceedings, with a complex schedule for the entire shoot that would have baffled Einstein.
By 10pm, we were on schedule with a very real sense of something rather magnificent taking shape. The images on the monitors predicted the extraordinary. The esprit de corps amongst the cast and the palpable good will from the parents was infectious.
Day 2: Saturday morning
Signage covered the walls: ‘First thing temperature check with Owen and hand sanitise.’ The young dictator was in serious mood. He temperature checked me. He had thoughtfully provided cakes and muffins, crisps and popcorn for the day – all individually packaged.
Makeup and costuming were already well underway. Sansha Johnson was magnificent as always. Evie Norton assisted, as well as being a cast member. Lydia Saroto ferried in a truck load of resplendent hand-tailored costumes and, with an impeccable eye for detail, fitted each cast member. The orchestra was setting up under the musical direction
of Geoff Smith. Masked and behind glass screens, it was a testament to days with a difference. This was a community in harmony working towards a shared vision. Geoff waved his baton commandingly in the air, the first tentative chords were struck, confidence ensued: 14 songs to record before 6pm – a marathon!
Richard Brenker and his wife Lindy arrived, unobtrusively, to say hello to all and wish us good fortune. It is to Richard a small thing; to us, the kind and considerate gesture that inspires.
We filmed the acting, occasionally venturing into the orchestra session for footage that would help to integrate the musicians with the production. Everyone must feel valued because they are an integral part of this remarkable process.
I shoot everything on my still camera for a keepsake album. Thankfully, Geoff took over this duty towards the end of Day 3, his photos being far superior to mine.
With every small step there was joy tempered with sadness. Test results had all proved negative, so Ruby White (Miranda) and Tamsyn Sollier-Smith (Ariel) and therefore Yumi were able to join us. Sadly, others were now being tested and had to stay at home. We recalibrated. Peter Noble, my good companion, who was one of my cameramen, took on the role of Alonso as sadly Steven Guerra was stuck at home. So too Shreya Bhavsar, who was desperate to attend.
Each scene must be filmed at least twice as we have two casts! There was a manic energy between takes, as costumes were swapped and positions reset. Owen assigned every scene, shot and song a numerical code, the outline of which was typed out on a spreadsheet covering a large trestle table.
Day 2 ends on schedule, the orchestra finishing with 10 minutes to spare. Incredible musos! I left Owen mulling over his intricate paperwork. He told me he’d be another couple of hours transferring the day’s footage and preparing for Sunday. Armed with his raw tapes, Geoff headed home for hours of editing and mixing. It was 4am when he sent the mixes to Owen to integrate with other video images.
Day 3: Sunday morning
Would the reshaped choreography work? Would the orchestra tracks and the vocals work? Would it all mesh? This whole thing was one great act of faith in each other: collaborative and egalitarian. I have never been involved in anything that has been quite so team driven. No time for ego or temperament or playing the boss at any stage.
As the minutes ticked over, we stuck to Owen’s meticulous scheme. Suddenly it was 6pm and we were done, finished for now, exhilarated and exhausted. There was tremendous footage amounting to two terabytes safely stored on hard drives locked securely in a briefcase, and great photos.
David Dunn is the Director of Student Theatre at Wesley’s Glen Waverley Campus.
After many weeks of editing, and films of both casts complete, plans are underway for a Century City red-carpet premiere screening for the entire community – with formal dress and celebratory afterparty, of course – in December.