Adapting for COVID brings honors to Detroit Mercy Theatre Company

March 02, 2022
Oliva Swad, right, as Tiresias makes a prophecy to the king, Kreon and Chorus during Detroit Mercy Theatre Company's production of Antigone.

Detroit Mercy Theatre Company (DMTC) needed to adapt last year to continue performing in the midst of a global pandemic. Those adjustments not only led to new, invaluable experiences for University of Detroit Mercy students, but showered DMTC with praise from a prestigious theatre festival.

DMTC went digital for its production of Hitchcocked! An Audio Drama and returned to the stage for Antigone. Both of these 2021 productions played a significant role in its success at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s (KCACTF) Region III Festival, held virtually in January.

Six Detroit Mercy students were nominated for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Competition for their performances in the pair of productions, and Antigone was one of six productions selected to perform at the prestigious regional festival.

KCACTF’s Region III consists of colleges and universities from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and western Ohio.

“This is all about the students,” said Greg Grobis, associate professor of Performing Arts and managing director for DMTC. “It’s about connecting what we’re teaching them in the classroom and on stage to the next level. This regional festival is such an opportunity for our students to network, go to workshops, learn new skills and share their talents.”

One of those opportunities is the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Competition, which provides students feedback from faculty within Region III to help them learn and grow from the experience.

Senior Kaelyn Johnson, junior Jade Sibert and sophomore Adam El-Zein's performances in Antigone led to nominations for the scholarship competition, while senior Elise Panneman, sophomore Luke Adamkiewicz and Preston Cornelius ’21 were nominated for their roles in Hitchcocked! Irene Ryan nominees were required to record and submit a 90-second monologue for the competition’s preliminary round ahead of the festival.

Grobis says nominations for the scholarship competition are held in high regard and come down to “believable performance” in their university’s productions.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges in art and theatre in general: Is what we’re doing believable and truthful?” he said. “That’s what is really remarkable about our small program at Detroit Mercy. We are providing those skills and allowing our students to have this authentic experience so that they are coming from a place of vulnerability and are authentic.”

Jade Sibert, left, as Ismene and Kaelyn Johnson as Antigone, discuss betraying the king to bury their brother.Jeremy St. Martin, a junior non-traditional student who composed original music for Hitchcocked! and Antigone, earned a certificate of merit for excellence in music composition.

Assistant Professor of Theatre and DMTC costume designer Mary Elizabeth Valesano evaluated regional design projects like student costume and makeup design and provided them with feedback.

The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theatres throughout Michigan, thereby eliminating live performances. Theatres and actors alike were forced to find new ways to safely deliver performances to audiences. DMTC was no exception.

Hitchcocked!, an original, five-episode adventure comedy based on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, allowed students to continue performing without stepping foot on stage. The audio play premiered in spring 2021 through Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Adamkiewicz, who played the role of series villain MacGuffin, said DMTC “had to discover new and exciting ways to spread that joy of theatre to new audiences.” But that didn’t come without its set of challenges — acting for a podcast was something Adamkiewicz had never experienced before.

“Without being in costume, it was hard getting into character,” he said. “But I could sort of stand back, take a deep breath and visualize how MacGuffin would handle the situation.”

With podcasting and digital media playing massive roles in today’s entertainment world, the experience helped teach students a valuable skill in voice over acting. As DMTC students seek careers in acting, their options go beyond performing on the stage, said Grobis.

Hitchcocked! really helped students learn the necessary skills of what it takes to record, edit and participate in a project like that,” he said.

Adamkiewicz agreed: “My dream is to act on stage, of course, but I also am interested in doing some voice acting with cartoons and the like. This was a great experience to look back and learn about, specifically for that.”

The fall 2021 production of Antigone marked DMTC’s return to live theatre. There was a desire to return to the stage, Grobis said, but the outcome was quite different from pre-pandemic productions. 

DMTC followed Detroit Mercy and the Actors’ Equity Association’s COVID protocols to keep students, faculty, staff and audiences as safe as possible. Facemasks were designed to be part of students’ costumes, and they had to learn how to perform and move while wearing them. Rehearsals were carefully scheduled to avoid overwhelming DMTC’s rehearsal space. Meals and snacks previously shared in the company of classmates were socially distanced.

“It really is important that we celebrate that, in the midst of a global pandemic, we were one of the first universities in our region to go back to in-person, live theatre performances, and then we were nominated because of the strength of it,” Grobis said. “We not only adjusted, we became the leaders of how we could do this regionally.”

For Adamkiewicz and his peers, returning to live performances with Antigone was a special moment. The Theatre and Communications double major operated the soundboard for the production.

“It was such a blessing just to be back in the theatre space and performing live theatre,” Adamkiewicz said. “I was behind the scenes, but I still got to see that joy of theatre coming back to the audience, really more than ever."

Sophocles’ Antigone needed to be translated to English from its original Greek and in doing so, the script was modernized to lean into its social justice aspects.

A pre-recorded version of Antigone was screened at the KCACTF regional festival. The last time DMTC performed a full production at the regional festival was in 1977 with The Brig, which earned an invitation to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

DMTC will learn in March if Antigone is selected to perform at this year’s national festival. Regardless of the production’s fate, Grobis is confident in DMTC’s role in educating and preparing Detroit Mercy students for their futures.

“We’re setting up a platform for our students to be successful,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see their growth. They are really thriving. We are fiercely committed to supporting our students and their creative futures.”

Learn more about Detroit Mercy Theatre Company.

— By Ricky Lindsay. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

A graphic for Detroit Mercy Theatre Company's production of Hitchcocked! An Audio Serial.