Online performance of ‘Alice Underground’ juxtaposes absurdism and reality of COVID life
“I could tell you about my adventures, beginning from this morning. There’s no point going back to yesterday; it’s like I was a different person then.”
That’s Alice’s point of view in the upcoming production of “Alice Underground,” presented by the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts. The show will premiere online on May 2 at 7:30 p.m.
After a year defined by muted screens, distance learning, and Zoom happy hours, Alice, a college student, falls down a rabbit hole into a world almost as strange as the one she left behind. Careening from mad tea parties to grinning cats to the dreaded Queen of Hearts, “Alice Underground” poses a question: In the midst of the uncontrollable, who are you?
“Alice Underground” — based on “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll — was adapted by theatre Associate Professor Amanda Nelson and guest artist/co-adapter Whitney Eggers.
The play is presented as a “filay,” or filmed play, a term Nelson coined.
“Audiences will recognize signs of the realities of the current moment,” said Nelson. “Actors perform in face masks; characters talk of losing track of time, of ‘what was’ and ‘what could be again,’ with overt and subtle references to toilet-paper shortages, hand sanitizer, and Zoom. I saw the topsy-turvy, upside-down world that Alice encounters down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass to be oddly familiar with our COVID-19 world. In the play, the absurd has become the real; the real now seems absurd.”
The production offered creative challenges to the entire team, which included faculty and students from the university’s theatre, music, cinema, and visual arts programs.
Filming was done in Squires Studio Theatre, with the unique twist of using the audience area as the “stage.” Courtney Bailey, a sophomore majoring in creative technologies, plays the title role of Alice.
“We ended up filming out of order,” Bailey said. “We rehearsed a select few scenes prior to our first weekend of filming, and focused on the rest of the scenes the following month. By approaching the play in this fashion, I always had to stay mindful of Alice’s overall character arc as she explored the Underground regardless of the order we worked on the scenes.”
Savannah Meredith, a senior marketing major and theatre minor, plays three different roles in the show — an Undergroundling, Tiger Lily, and the Duchess. “I loved playing with the different qualities, mannerisms, and tone each character possesses,” Meredith said, “because they were all vastly different.”
Asked how this production differs from more traditional theatre shows, Meredith noted the range of creative disciplines involved, with graphic designers in the School of Visual Arts collaborating with cinema, sound, music, and theatre students in the School of Performing Arts.
“What an amazing opportunity to work with so many different kinds of artists,” Meredith said. “Of course it’s been a different experience performing with masks and social distancing, but a major gift of collaborating with artists from all fields has been such a treat.”
Designing costumes for a theatre production during the pandemic presented challenges for Gwen Zobel, a second-year master of fine arts student in costume design. “We had to account for an additional level of actor safety that involved masking everyone,” said Zobel. “Embracing the masks as the focal point for most characters was definitely the most challenging part, but also the most rewarding.”
To maintain COVID-19 safety protocols, Zobel designed costume elements — character face masks, hats, and animal tails.
The production involved student actors, stage managers, videographers, sound editors and technicians, designers, and a production crew.
Wynn Yang, a Virginia Tech graduate in music technology, composed the title song “Alice,” which can be heard here.
“Alice Underground” will premiere May 2 at 7:30 p.m. on the School of Performing Arts’ YouTube channel; it will be available for future viewing on the YouTube channel as well. Reservations, which are optional, may be made here.
To add to the fun, School of Visual Arts students created downloadable Zoom backgrounds (Cheshire Cat, Out of Sequence Numbers, Upside Down Umbrellas) and adult coloring and print activities (Mad Hatter coloring sheet, umbrellas coloring sheet, make a paper plane, make a paper boat).
If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Susan Sanders as soon as possible in advance of the event.