Scrollytelling demo: Determined dancers, passionate singers, and zombified actors at Vic

Adam A. Lam

Scrollytelling demo: Determined dancers, passionate singers, and zombified actors at Vic

Scrollytelling demo: Determined dancers, passionate singers, and zombified actors at Vic

Adam A. Lam
Pictures: Yoo-Ji Kweon
April 22, 2021
How Victoria College’s performance arts clubs celebrated culture in an era of social distancing

A diseased-looking actor sinks his teeth into his colleague in the middle of a Hart House Theatre production—more accurately, in my imagined imagery of the now-closed theatre as I listen to a passionate performance by actors from the Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS).

“Screw this stupid Hart House headset, and all-immersive site-specific theatre experiences that allow for breaking the fourth wall,” grumbles the Stage Manager in the theatre’s imagined technical booth. At his command, the Lighting Technician flickers on the house lights to reveal the living dead devouring the acting crew and audiences, as screams and the groans of zombies colour the background of the play.

The play—the one I’m streaming on Spotify, rather than the play-within-the-play in which fictional stage production staff are reacting to a deadly pandemic of a different kind—is named Technical Deadication. The VCDS bills the production—released on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube in December—as a radio play that represents a “rom-com-dram-zom,” set in the technical booth of a fictionalized Hart House.

The audio production represents the innovative adaptations by Victoria College’s student societies—including Vic Chorus and Vic Dance—in the performance arts. The groups have historically delivered in-person performances in packed theatres, but are now celebrating creativity, culture, and a dedication to practiced performance in ways that keep audiences safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reflecting on the zombie-filled production, Diana Gil Hamel, Executive Co-Producer at the VCDS, recalled how the challenge of social distancing led to a burst of creativity among the production crew. “It’s been a really cool opportunity, I think, to explore new mediums and new kinds of theatre that we wouldn’t have ever done,”  told The Strand.

Technical Deadication is a student-written script initially proposed to the VCDS as an in-person production last year, said Hamel. “The script really lends itself to the audio format as well,” added VCDS Executive Co-Producer Alexa Ballis. Helen Ho wrote the production’s script, which Naira Bahrami directed for online release this year.


A zombie-filled production

In an interview with The Strand, Ho reflected on the inspiration for her first draft of Technical Deadication in high school. “I went to an arts high school and we did a Fringe Festival, which is a very short drama festival of plays that are all written and directed by students,” she said. Ho knew she wanted to write a play with zombies, but she also wanted to separate her piece from the traditional zombie dramas that most audience members would be familiar with.

Her drama teacher remarked that she had never seen a zombie show about stage crew members who work backstage, which Ho could relate to with her experience in helping produce dramas backstage. She also drew inspiration from “Dead End” by Jonathan Sun, a one-act play about two survivors of a zombie apocalypse trapped in a narrow hallway by a zombie standing in their way at the exit, which she recalled being performed in Toronto.

Reflecting on adapting the play for an audio drama, Ho said: “I’ve never written a radio drama before or an audio drama.” The work to transition the format included reworking much of the comedy’s jokes, which were originally to be staged in-person.

Cues for actors to express themselves with body language transformed into cues for altering their tone of voice, as Ho had to change the play without the scriptwriter’s traditional tools of body language, visual effects, and staging for expression.

“I think it’s really interesting, because the people that we got in the cast… [are] all terrific stage actors. And I think very few of them had done like a radio drama before or an audio drama,” she said. Her efforts with Technical Deadication’s script aimed to help them find a way to adapt to their roles with just their voices.

In addition to Technical Deadication, Ho is also the Assistant Director for When All This is Over, directed by Sydnie Phillips, which the VCDS released this month. When All This is Over is a dramatization of the COVID-19 pandemic, which focuses on five individuals at UofT on the last day before UofT’s in-person classes shut down to enact social distancing and dampen the spread of the virus.

“This pandemic has been so crazy and life-altering,” said Ho. “I remember when I would, like, walk around on campus, and I would see so many people.” The play evokes imagery of characters going to class in-person, returning from a party, and meeting other people before the pandemic that has lasted more than a year.

“Right now, we’re at a point where we’re very alone and isolated, but being able to listen to that, I feel, grants a sense of unity in that we’re all still going through this together, and we all feel the same way,” she said. “When all this is over… we’ll see each other again, and it won’t be so alone.”

“I hope it’s a nice relatable thing for people to be able to listen to, be reminded of their friends, and be reminded that they’re not alone,” remarked Ho.

Determined dancers

As VCDS worked on revamping theatre production during the pandemic, Vic Dance developed ways to celebrate dance performance online as well. “We’re a very small community at Vic,” said Vic Dance Co-President Hannah Waldman to The Strand. “It’s [a space] for people who have for dancing before they came to UofT and just want to continue to be involved in dance, but not in a super intense or high commitment way.”

Waldman has a long history performing with Vic Dance. She joined in her first year, and this  year of COVID-19 will be her final, as she prepares to graduate this year. “As a dance club, it was definitely an adjustment to transition from being in person to Zoom, especially because dance is such a physical thing,” she reflected. Before social distancing, she noted, “We typically practiced in the music room at [the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport].

“Or somewhere that is available in Goldring,” she added with a chuckle. “Learning choreography on Zoom is definitely more challenging than it is in person,” she said, which led the team to develop strategies to learn choreography online. One strategy by Vic Dance included recording instructional videos to share with its members, for performance to learn choreography between group sessions.

“We are still trying to have a show at the end of the academic year,” she said. She notes that the performance will be pre-recorded, and likely released on Vic Dance’s social media on the weekend of April 9 to 10. “Even though the pandemic did hit our club quite hard, we still managed to get new members, which I was really happy about,” Waldman reflected. “And I think they are intending to return next year and to keep the club alive. And not even the pandemic could stop us from dancing.”

While Vic Dance helped sustain a passion for dancing, Vic Chorus helped UofT students engage with their passion for vocal performance. Valentine Lynch, Co-President of Vic Chorus, spoke to The Strandabout how the chorus team adopted the vocal activities of the club to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The nature of choral performance is something that’s really difficult to do online,” she said. When the social distancing was first implemented last year, Vic Chorus was wrapping up their season—one of a storied history that stretches back to 1892, according to the club, including past incarnations as the Gilbert and Sullivan Appreciation Society and the Vic Glee Club.

Vic Chorus adapted to the online format by recording performances asynchronously for the club to edit together at a later point. “It’s definitely been a challenge, but it’s something that we’ve been able to work out,” Lynch said. “It was really exciting to try something new.”

Lynch reflected that the pandemic may have had positive effects on the community at Vic Chorus. She recalled how chorus members used to talk to mostly members of their same section before the pandemic: from soprano, alto, tenor, or bass.

But since the shift to Zoom, Lynch has engaged and grown closer with “people from a different voice section,” in addition to chorus members she would typically sit next to in rehearsal. “I got to meet different parts of the floor that I hadn’t necessarily spoken with before,” she said. The online format also enabled physically distant performers, living from Vancouver to China, to perform chorus together with members in Toronto.

Lynch noted the pandemic’s effects on the chorus’s performances. “We usually have a concert in the fall and then two in the spring,” she said. The fall semester performance typically consists of traditional chorus music, and Vic Chorus usually also creates a performance in collaboration with UofT’s School of Theology.

Adapting to COVID-19, Lynch said that Vic Chorus produced a formalized event in March, adapting to the increased workload drawn from video production and editing. Vic Chorus has also been publishing individual recordings on IGTV. As a non-audition club, Lynch encourages members of the Victoria College to join for next year. “The only requirement is that you love to [sing], and if people want to join, they can get in touch with the email.”

As illustrated by the persistent efforts from the VCDS, Vic Dance, and Vic Chorus in a time of social distancing, students from across Victoria College found success in creating unforgettable experiences for the performing arts during the COVID-19 pandemic.