By: Isaiah Hazelwood, Senior Staff Editor
After a year-long dark winter of COVID-19, the Trinity College Drama Society (TCDS) has returned to the stage at the Hart House Theater Festival. This annual festival allows UofT Drama societies to showcase student-written and student-directed performances on the Hart House stage. This year, theater groups from Trinity College, UTM, University College, St. Michael’s College, and Victoria College recorded their on-stage productions for a premier on YouTube on Sunday, March 27th.
The TCDS’s original performance for the festival is Together but Apart, written and directed by TCDS executive Shelley Mayer. It sets several firsts, as it is the first play performed on the Hart House stage since the pandemic and is Hart House’s first ever hybrid play.
The Trinity Times interviewed Mayer, alongside the play’s producer and TCDS President Valerio Greganti, to learn about the play, the complex background behind its production, and the performance at Hart House.
Responses are edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: To start off, give a quick summary of your play Together but Apart.
Mayer: The play centers around Riley, a young girl in her 20s, and is set in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Even before the pandemic, Riley’s been dissatisfied with her life. She wants to be an artist, but her mom wants her to find a steadier job. She’s rejecting the digital world, thinks it makes life harder for people, and wants to connect with people in a deeper way than social media. But when she rebels against it, she loses her job and her boyfriend breaks up with her for not being “digitally sociable,” quoting from my own play.
As the pandemic breaks out, Riley goes to the family cottage to take a break and make time and space for herself. She’s not happy about the pandemic, but she’s grateful that it let her get out of the push and pull of life.
While there, she meets a guy named Josh who’s having the opposite struggle. He tried to pursue music for three years, but it didn’t work out. His dad owns a summer camp near Riley’s cottage, and he’s devastated that the pandemic means it isn’t happening.
Over time, Riley and Josh form this connection, even though they’re opposites. They have a deep understanding of each other, because they both want to form real connections with other people in their lives. The play is about those bonds: Riley’s trying to make up with her family, Josh wants to connect with his friend Mitch who only wants to see people online, and Riley helps comfort Josh as they struggle with the pandemic and the uncertainty about when it’ll end.
Q: That’s a really relevant production for these continuing pandemic times. What were your inspirations while writing it?
Mayer: It was a mix of my own experiences during the pandemic. Hearing about the hell that healthcare workers went through got to me, so I really wanted a place for that in the play. I ended up acting in the play as a character who’s a healthcare worker, and she’s representing all the hardships that they went through.
I watched a lot of news during the pandemic, and there’s two scenes in the play involving a news announcer. That’s how we heard about everything being cancelled, and we ended up attached to the news channels.
The play went through three drafts during writing, but I always had this vision of it being a hybrid play. Even if we could do everything in-person, I wanted to make some scenes which take place over Zoom and project Zoom recordings of those scenes in the actual theater.
Q: Even though you were able to record a performance in-person at Hart House, pandemic restrictions still applied, and the main premier is online. How else has the pandemic impacted the performance?
Greganti: First and foremost, there were very restrictive rules from UofT and the province. We couldn’t prepare on campus – no rehearsal spaces, no venues, no anything. We were always worried about sanitation, about UCheck, about vaccination records, about masks, and about socially distancing. We understand the university is worried, but it was disheartening to see intramurals mask-free with 50 people playing on a court while we were told to keep off-stage.
Mayer: I have a lot to say about that too. We weren’t allowed to rehearse anywhere except Hart House, so we had a very limited amount of time to prepare. Initially, I was planning on doing 12 scenes on stage and 2 on Zoom, but it ended up as 8 on Zoom and 6 on stage. That meant we had a lot more rehearsal time for the on-stage scenes that needed it.
I don’t like performing with masks, because so much of the story can be told through the actors’ faces. Seeing the actors’ facial expressions made me want to put more scenes online, particularly in scenes where there was more catharsis and vulnerability. It sort of fits thematically. Wearing a mask is a restriction, it’s holding back the feelings that you’re not ready to express at first. Later when you reveal those feelings, you can take that mask off – and you’re on camera, so it’s up-close and personal.
As a writer, I’m very much into intimacy, but we couldn’t have any of that because of social distancing. That was another reason to bring Zoom into the play more than initially planned, because we could create an illusion of intimacy on camera.
Another challenge with the in-person scenes was making sure everyone was healthy. There was always the fear that someone would get sick or be in quarantine from an exposure. We are a small cast with no understudies, so everyone was vital. I honestly don’t know how we would have handled if an actor or crew member had to self-isolate on show day. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.
Q: Those are quite a few challenges. This was your first time writing and directing, so how did it stack up to what you were expecting? What would you tell first years or new writers and directors?
Mayer: When you first have a vision, it has a lot of holes. My vision for the play evolved with the rehearsals, the actors, and with the many hurdles, but it lived up to what I wanted to see.
It was really crazy trying to put scenes on their feet on stage. For new people, I would say to just have fun with it. I’m a bad example of that, I stress about the things I care about, but submit the audition tapes that you love and write the story that most speaks to you.
Q: That’s all the planned questions. Do you have any last words?
Mayer: I want to shout out my entire cast and crew for all their hard work. We had only 12 days to put together the production. I learned throughout that you’re always tight on time, but we got it done anyway.
I’m super proud of my actors: Emma Janusky, Nidhil Vohra, Nicholas Spina, Aylin Salahshoor, and Sujan Chowdhury. I’m so thankful for my stage manager Anna Novak who also did the sound, my head composer Daniel Sheibani, and the composers Charlie Olsen, Emma Clark, and Duncan Hall. They put this thing together in 12 days, and it’s insane.