As the coronavirus began to spread across the country last year, live performances suddenly came to a screeching halt. All across the world, theaters went dark.
Theatre AUG at Augusta University was no different. COVID-19 changed everything in 2020.
“We didn’t have the spring show last year because it was canceled at the last minute,” said Dr. Melanie Kitchens O’Meara, an associate professor of performance studies in the Department of Art and Design at Augusta University. “Then, in the fall, we weren’t able to get a show together. But I knew the students wanted to do a show, so I was committed to figuring it out.”
Instead of holding a live performance inside the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre on the Summerville Campus of Augusta University, O’Meara decided to present an outdoor spring performance of the play, “Metaphysique D’Ephemera,” on the theater’s portico to allow the actors and the audience to follow social distancing guidelines.
“There are so many things we can safely do outside,” O’Meara said. “And the actors have been wearing masks in our rehearsals to stay as safe as possible. We are just trying to gather and make something special together. I think it certainly means a lot to these students. It’s a creative outlet for them and it’s also been exciting for me. I’ve missed it.”
Theatre AUG and Augusta University’s Department of Art and Design will present “Metaphysique D’Ephemera,” a play written by Sarah Jackson and Christopher Shipman and directed by O’Meara, at 7:30 p.m. March 18-21 outside on the Maxwell Theatre’s portico.
Seating will be limited to about 35 guests each evening. The show is free and only open to Augusta University students, faculty and staff. Masks are required to be worn by the audience during the show.
The play, “Metaphysique D’Ephemera,” is based on the art and assemblage process of American artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell, O’Meara explained. Cornell was a premier assemblagist who elevated the box to a major art form.
“‘Metaphysique D’Ephemera’ was written by a friend of mine from grad school, Sarah Jackson, and her husband, Chris Shipman, who is a poet,” O’Meara said. “I love that the focus of this show is on Joseph Cornell, the artist and his assemblage process and his art-making process. He was known for walking the city, collecting items and then taking all these found things and combining them in new ways.
“And that’s sort of what we’re having to do in these strange times with COVID. We are having to figure out how to appreciate what we have that maybe we didn’t appreciate last year before all of this started.”
The play, which is set in a decaying Coney Island, addresses the conflicts that arise when the protagonist, The Cat Prince, chooses to live in the past and forgets to experience the present or make room for the future. The performance has five starring roles: The Cat Prince, a ballerina, the rabbit, a bird and the theater.
“It’s a very a poetic piece,” O’Meara said. “There’s lots of references to beauty and how we see beauty and where we find it. The main character is The Cat Prince, and he is stuck in his past. The other main character is a rabbit. Cornell’s brother, who he lived with his whole life, drew rabbits all the time so they would often crop up in his art.”
The rabbit in the play is trying to pull The Cat Prince out of the past, O’Meara said.
“The character of the rabbit is saying, ‘Hey, look, you’re living in the past. This is the way it was, but it’s not like this anymore,’” O’Meara said. “The message is: We have to open our eyes and we have to accept where we are and try to embrace the future by appreciating the past, but leaving it in the past and living for the present.”
The play also includes a ballerina who The Cat Prince tries to keep in a box, but the rabbit encourages him to set her free. The outdoor theater even has its own voice and the two curtains speak during the show, she said.
“It’s a lot of fun and I’m really excited about it,” O’Meara said. “It’s been challenging trying to figure out how to move the show outside, but I think we have appreciated being outside and we’ve embraced how beautiful it is out here.”
Shaylon Hughs, an alumna of Augusta University who graduated in December 2019, plays the role of The Cat Prince.
“The Cat Prince reminds me a lot of Johnny Depp’s ‘Mad Hatter,’” Hughs said, laughing. “That is kind of who I channel for this character because he’s so in and out of consciousness and a very whimsical character. He’s almost like a kid who’s gone through trauma, but doesn’t want to admit it or know how to express the trauma. So instead, he just draws into himself and says, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this and I don’t even really want to deal with this, so I’m going to stay in my head.’”
The role is complex and challenges her as an actress, Hughs said.
“I’m very excited for people to see the play and to hear what they think about it,” she said. “And I honestly think that it’s going to mean the world to people who haven’t seen a live performance in more than a year.”
People need to feel connected to other individuals and enjoy new experiences together, Hughs said.
“Personally, in my life, everybody I know feels so shut in and shut off,” Hughs said. “For me, theater has always been what has helped me cope. It has helped me kind of get away from the stresses of life. And, so for about an hour or so, I think this play is going to mean the world to the audience because it’s human interaction and we all need that.”
Faydia Ramnarine, a communication major who is graduating in May, plays the role of the rabbit in “Metaphysique D’Ephemera.”
“My purpose is to foil the plans of The Cat Prince, so that’s pretty fun,” Ramnarine said. “And there’s this weird juxtaposition of the really poetic language that all the other characters are using and then the rabbit kind of pops up and says, ‘No, that’s not how this is going to work.’ So, it’s fun to be on the other side of that to bring the logic back and I get to play devil’s advocate a little bit.”
At times, rehearsing outside has been a challenge, but Ramnarine said the long hours have been worth it.
“To me, this play is a little bit of the light at the end of the COVID tunnel,” she said. “It’s like, we’re still able to maintain a little bit of that magic that we had before.”
Tran Keller, a senior communication major, faced a challenging year with the COVID pandemic while he was preparing for his role as the outspoken bird in the play.
“My mom actually had COVID back in September and early October and it was really rough. She almost didn’t make it, but thankfully she pulled through it,” Keller said. “So, it’s been difficult trying to balance school and worrying about my family and then also trying to prepare for this role. But I really wanted to be a part of this play.”
There are several parts within the play that remind him of the struggles people have faced this past year with COVID-19, Keller said. For example, the poor air quality at Coney Island causes many animals to have breathing problems, he said.
“My character, the bird, specifically always says, ‘You’re breathing. You’re breathing everything. You’re breathing,’” Keller said. “And with COVID, if you contract the virus, it prevents you from breathing properly. Also, the bird sort of feels like he’s being trapped in a cage and he wants to really be free and fly, but he’s sort of stuck. So, there are definitely references in the play that remind me of COVID.”
Keller hopes that the students, faculty and staff will support Theatre AUG by coming out and seeing this original play for free.
“One of the messages in the play is you cannot create the same moment twice,” Keller said. “You can try to do the same things you did to recreate it, but it will never be the same. Each moment has its own uniqueness. So, I think people will definitely be excited to see this play.”
The return to live performances is something we all need in our lives, said O’Meara.
“I’m thankful the university is letting us do this so that we can share this play with our campus community. I really hope that people will come out and support it,” O’Meara said. “Theater is an important part of our community. People want to be together and see new things and feel inspired. This year has been so hard on all of us, but I think this will really help.”