In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria writes a letter to trick Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him. In response, Malvolio did the crazy things, like wearing yellow stockings, which Maria suggested in the fake letter. Seeing Malvolio's crazy behavior, out of earshot, Fabian exclaims, “If this were played upon a stage now; I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
The line could also have been used by rising fourth-year Avery Erskine (College ’22) at many points during the journey to presenting her own production of the play last year. In what has become a familiar tale across the arts and throughout life in general, Erskine had very different production plans than those that ultimately materialized. She had been elected to direct the show in November of 2019, completed casting and had begun intensive rehearsals.
She was deep into the process, having chosen to mimic the aesthetics of 1950’s advertisements to highlight the strict heteronormativity and gender roles that Shakespeare’s characters challenge and break. She would rely heavily on visual elements, devising a multi-leveled stage, brightly-colored costumes, lights, and backdrops, and a heavy emphasis on physical comedy and careful blocking.
Erskine was working tirelessly with her cast and was only weeks away from opening night of her Shakespeare on the Lawn production at the Student Activities Building when the world stopped last March. There were only three weeks until opening night.
There were many more questions than answers for all of us in those early days, but Erskine knew one thing for sure: “I was determined from the outset not to let this go.” In fact, she succeeded in getting a $3,000 grant from the Miller Arts Scholars to present it as a live production in the Fall of 2020. When officials told her this would not happen, Erskine said the certainty was almost liberating. She moved straight to Plan C and talked with UVA Drama professor Dave Dalton about moving forward with it as a radio play.
She found that nearly all her cast members were willing and able to roll with the format change. Now all Erskine had to do was to add “technology expert” to her resume. She worked with UVA professor and noted sound designer Michael Rasbury on what she would need to learn, purchased microphones, took her own crash course in Logic Pro software, and was ready to go. The cast began Zoom rehearsals on September 21, logging in from around the country and the world, including India and the United Kingdom. Erskine and her cast spent three hours rehearsing on Zoom each night before recording the production over a three-week period starting in October.
Erskine, who had previously relied on movement, body language and visual cues to tell the story, now faced the challenge of making the Bard’s language, and this classic story, accessible to contemporary audiences. One way she accomplished this was by adding a narrator to the cast, played by Maille-Rose Smith.
The recording, of course, was just the start. “I think I spent a total of 100 hours editing before this piece was truly ready,” Erskine said. While the editing was largely a solitary pursuit, she was quick to point out that none of this could have happened without the support and input of her colleagues, including Michael McNulty, who contributed the score and delivered remarkable results with minimal input, as well as stage manager Charlie Mooz and assistant director Tanaka Muvavarirwa. “Those two kept me sane as friends, and I would send them every cut, and they would give me notes, which meant I was not the only one critiquing and making changes to the final project.”
Like many of us during the pandemic, Erskine learned how to get by with a lot of help from her friends. Erskine said putting the project together was one thing, but the support of WTJU gave them both a distribution channel and some much-appreciated technical support. Her Miller Arts Scholar cohorts offered a constant sounding board: “They were a network I could lean on and were instrumental in my being able to complete this project.”
While she never got to have the opening night moment that brings directors a familiar combination of terror and delight, Erskine did get a moment that seemed appropriate for a solitary age: “I have this video on my phone of when I had finally finished the cut of the first episode,” she said. “I heard Maillereading the closing credits, and to hear all of those names at once with Michael’s music behind them, I was able to say, ‘I put this together. We did that. This is real. And it exists solely because we worked so hard on it.’”