A new way to experience Shakespeare: Student-run virtual production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ premieres this Friday


Cast members in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ rehearsed and filmed the production over Zoom, from various locations across the country. (Photo courtesy of Lizzie Gumula ’22)

Katie Frost

2020 has been a tough year for the theater world. For some Lafayette students, however, all the world truly is a stageeven the box of a Zoom screen.

A student-produced production of “Much Ado About Nothing” opens this Friday night for its first of three live-streamed shows. Co-sponsored by Alpha Psi Omega and the Arts Society, this take on the famous Shakespearean comedy was pre-recorded over Zoom and edited by Jay Ascher ‘22 to create a unique theater-viewing experience. 

The production started with an idea that director Lizzie Gumula ‘22 had early in the summer: a socially-distanced, outdoor performance for students interested in pursuing a student-produced show at the college. She had already started getting word out when the college announced a virtual semester on July 22. Gumula said she gave herself “48 hours to mourn” before she started receiving emails from incoming first-year students, asking if the show was still happening. 

“I love helping [first-years] integrate into the community, and I thought, ‘even if one freshman auditions and makes one friend, I need to do it,’” Gumula said.

Thus began the college’s first Zoom production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

Gumula said that her reasons for choosing this show, besides her love for the characters and the humor, were its political undertones that she said can be relevant for students today, including the “dumb” law enforcement and a number of “Me Too” themes present throughout the show.

“Some of the strongest female characters…from the canon are in this production,” Gumula said.

Cast members began rehearsing in August, reporting from multiple states and time zones across the country. For a number of them, first-years and upperclassmen alike, this will be their first theater performance at the college.

Ben Putnam ‘24, who plays Benedick, noted that “as a first-year, not knowing anybody besides other first-years, it was really heartwarming to be accepted into this community.”

No matter their experience level with live theater, cast members were all in the same boat when it came to trying to figure out what acting over Zoom entailed.

“It’s really funny how hard it is to look in a certain direction and see nobody there, having no visual cues,” Putnam said. He added that the actors’ body language is limited because moving around can cause their head to be cut off at the top of their Zoom box.

However, Anna Zittle ‘22, who plays Verges, explained that it was still possible for characters to create chemistry and play off of each other smoothlywith a little extra practice. 

“There are these moments that you catch where you’re both on the same wavelength, and it’s working really, really well,” Zittle said.

Stage manager Becca Wilts ‘23 noted that it has been “interesting” to learn how to do her job in a virtual setting. Some of her responsibilities included scheduling, completing paperwork, coordinating costumeswhich were shipped all over the country to the castand noting any technological improvements that could help the show.

“When we’re recording, I can text one of our actors and say, ‘hey, this reaction looks great, but there’s a Zoom delay, so anticipate the line more!’” Wilts said.

Furthermore, this production of “Much Ado About Nothing” has a twist: it takes place in 1945 Hollywood, a decision made by Gumula. The actors’ costumes and transatlantic accents along with the video’s added visual and audio effects are meant to make viewers feel that they took a step back in time.

“I was thinking about the political undertones and how they translated to a particular era, and I thought, ‘What has more gossip about nothing that really matters more than Hollywood, especially 1945 Hollywood?’” Gumula said. “Women were massively discriminated against, not given the same opportunities, used for their bodies, used for their appearances, and then kind of exploited…Ultimately, it was a pretty toxic environment.”

After the Sunday matinee show, the cast and crew will participate in a live talk-back, moderated by Theater Professor Michael O’Neill, where they will answer audience questions about the cut and adaptation of the production and what the virtual theater process entailed for them. 

“Right now, it’s really important to see that students are coming together to put art into the world because it’s a very difficult time for artists right now,” Zittle said. “[In doing this show], we can all bring different people into this community and say, ‘Hey, we’re still here, we’re still thriving, and we’re committed to making art available for people.’”

“I want [this show] to make people miss live theater, and I want it to make at least one person realize, ‘yes, wearing my mask out in public is important because maybe sometime soon then I can return to a theater,’” Gumula added. 

“Much Ado About Nothing” will be live-streamed on Friday, September 18 and Saturday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m. as well as Sunday, September 20 at 1:00 pm. Tickets are free and can be accessed on the Lafayette ticket office website.