The Show Must Go On – UQ Drama in a Global Pandemic

1 July 2020

Introducing Bella Schwarzenecker 

Bella Schwarzenecker is a third year Bachelors of Journalism/Arts student at The University of Queensland whose passion for the stage led her to Major in drama. Having been involved in the performance world for 15 years through dance, Bella wanted to continue to explore performance options when she reached university. After her first drama tutorial she quickly discovered her love of live theatre performance and the vibrant UQ drama community.

"UQ drama has been a fantastic experience. I love every minute of it – even when I'm not doing a performance and I'm directing on the sidelines, it's incredible," she said when describing her time in the Major. 

Bella has not only been able to develop as a performer through the program but has also made strong friendships which she attributes to the experience of being on stage together. 

"We treat drama like we are the ones who are going to change the world, whether it's through playwrighting or performing," she said when describing her peers. 

Bella's love of performance became clear when she decided, the show must go on despite the uncertainty surrounding a world coming to terms with a global pandemic. 

Live Theatre Production in a Pandemic

In 2020 when COVID-19 and social distancing became familiar terms – UQ drama students in the play, The Arsonists were tasked with the challenge of performing to a virtual audience as part of the course DRAM2200 - Live Theatre Production. 

This unprecedented and sudden reality was met with some trepidation by Bella. 

"I've always performed to a live audience. When you perform you get your feedback through audience reactions – whether it's a clap or even a gasp. That's how we know we are doing good. When I heard it was going to be livestreamed, I was very nervous, " Bella admitted. 

After seeing the plays selected by the course coordinator Dr Chris Hay, she knew that despite the challenges ahead, she had to be involved.

The two absurdist plays selected were, The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco and The Arsonists by  Max Frisch. While The Bald Soprano was performed internally, The Arsonists was livestreamed to a wide global audience.

Chris orginally decided to present this double-bill in an identical form to the Old Tote Theatre Company, the legendary Australian company that emerged out of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in the early 1960s, who presented these two plays as their second-ever production on 17 April 1963.

In introducing this radical new form of theatre to an Australian audience in 1963, the director John Clark wrote, “The Theatre of the Absurd is a new type of entertainment which sets out to communicate, in theatrical terms, the uncertainties and contradictions in modern society.”

Of the play selection Chris said, "These two plays felt like the perfect response to a world that suddenly seemed out-of-control, given the characters of both are dealing with the disintegration of the world around them. What started off as an oblique comment on bushfires and the climate emergency suddenly became perfect pandemic performance!"

Bella played the lead female role of Babette Biedermann in the absurdist play, The Arsonists

"Babette kind of grounded the whole play, she was a character who was always calm – so I had to make sure I stayed calm and this helped ground me too," Bella said of the role. 

Photo Credit: Douglas Taylor. Bella in her role as Babette Biedermann. 

The challenges of pulling together a professional performance admist a global pandemic were enormous. Bella and her castmates were not deterred however, pulling 12 hour rehearsal days and fighting fatigue to make the most of their limited time in the studio. 

"It was an experience. It was amazing. All of us had so much faith in Chris to put on these plays – it was an incredible experience to be part of," she said. 

Photo Credit: Douglas Taylor. Bella's castmates in action.

The hard work payed off and the students recieved over 300 views across the two performances, with mulltiple people watching on the same screen. Cast family members were able to tune in from overseas and students were able to see just how global their performances ended up being. 

Despite her original concerns around not having a live audience - Bella was incredibly glad that the show did go on. 

"If we were to perform our plays in the studio (as we were supposed to), there is no way we would have been able to fit that many seats. So, while this semester was challenging, we never would have had the opportunity to perform to such a large audience if it wasn’t via livestream," she said.

It is clear that the passion and determination of the students and staff involved, enabled UQ Drama to take on new heights, despite the significant production challenges posed by COVID-19.

It’s UQ Drama: experiencing, examining, creating theatre

Photo Credit: Douglas Tayor. UQ drama students performing to a live virtual audience. 

Drama at UQ offers one of the most comprehensive canonical curriculums in Australia. Students get to study theatre history, theory and practice, where they develop a deep understanding of ancienct Greek classics and Medieval theatre to the most recent plays from around the world. 

“At UQ Drama, we train our students to look backwards as well as forwards, understanding the dramatic traditions from which their work emerges while building their own pathways towards creative careers. Given we don’t know what theatre might look like post-pandemic, these talented students have developed vital skills in how to work with new technologies to keep performing," Chris said.

A dual degree student, Bella said that her drama studies have also made a positive impact on her broadcast journalism training. 

"In order to be on TV or on the radio, even if you are presenting the news you have to have some kind of personality – drama has helped so much with that. I've been trained now on how to present myself on camera, on how to project my voice, how to speak to an audience and that has 100 per cent helped me when presenting a news story," she said.

On if the dual program gave her an edge, "I'm also doing a broadcast journalism intership with 4ZZZ and I can pick up when people haven't been vocally trained. UQ drama has really helped me in the way that I communicate my stories . This makes all the difference." 

Bella's journey at UQ highlights how a dual program enables students to work across industries.

We can't wait to see Bella in the spotlight as she continues to hone her craft in live theatre performance and broadcast journalism.  

Story by: Olivia Brown


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