By Stephen Wilson

High school is rife with drama as love blooms, friendships are tested, and hearts break … but soon mend.

Such was the case for young people in 1816 when Jane Austen was writing such tales, and much is the same today as students performed a contemporary, pop music-filled adaptation of her story Emma, a classic in what not to do when it comes to matchmaking or meddling (depending on your perspective).

The theater department took on the tremendous challenge of staging Emma! A Pop Musical as a virtual performance. 

That means taking all the conventions of theater, like character development, voice, blocking, sets, props, lighting, and music, and translating them into a Zoom-like environment.

No easy feat.

But more fun when hearing bangers like Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” just to name a few.

Add more fun with Polaroid-style graphics and cupid-like animations.

“One of the most quoted lines in Austen’s Emma is, ‘Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,’” says Mary Jo Lodge, show director and associate professor of theater. “Austen’s words land differently in the days of quarantines, school closures, and isolation, but the show, especially this pop music version, can be a bit like comfort food in these difficult days.”

The musical follows the original fiction pretty tightly as Emma, who thinks she successfully played matchmaker for two teachers, attempts to help a student find love. Of course, Emma’s help spins off course, and as other students, both new and famous, join the student body, her plans are disrupted even more.

But, as would be expected, love wins out in the end, and Emma realizes her matchmaking skills may not be her forte.

Such clear and simple life lessons didn’t mean an easy production. Quite the contrary. Despite the creators reconfiguring the show into a safe-at-home production, group numbers and dance sequences over Zoom were challenging.

The internet was not able to support the technical needs to allow the show to be broadcast live, so filming it became the only option.

“We had to shoot actors separately as they did their part as part of a group scene, and then edit the other group members’ sound out, and then re-edit with the matching pieces from their cast members,” says Lodge. “Just one brief scene of a few lines could require five or six separate takes that would then have to be painstakingly edited together.”

Add to it the complexities of recording while home, like having to start over when the family dog barks or a sibling craves microwave popcorn.

“I am extraordinarily proud of how the students came together and excelled despite all of the challenges,” she says. “I could not have done it without our skilled production team, anchored by our technical director, Alex Owens, our costume designer, Erin Hopwood, digital artist Jen Philburn, and guest video designer Chris Kateff, and guest actor Noah Ruebeck.”


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