MMNT produces in-person play festival despite ongoing pandemic


Courtesy of MMNT Twitter

All performances were socially distant and would take place after the sun went down, allowing for lights and specials to be seen on both the actors and the set.

On Nov. 13-22, the Mary Moody Northen Theatre (MMNT) hosted their annual 10-Minute Play Festival. To ensure safe and successful performances while in the COVID-19 pandemic, many guidelines were followed, including socially distanced blocking and mask-wearing actors.

The festival took place outside the MMNT near Johnson, Hunt and Le Mans Halls and had a drive-in experience for audience members. 

“It makes me feel like I’m in Shakespeare in the Park,” actor and freshman Juan Diego Chaparro said. “It’s so weird, though, because we can’t even hear people laughing. We just have to believe it’s funny. It’s an exercise, for sure. I’m not hearing anything from an audience, so I have to assume I am doing a good job.”

Chaparro said he was grateful for the opportunity to stand on a stage again and perform. 

“We are lucky to get to have this experience,” he said. “We are a smaller department in general, so we’ve been able to adapt well. We are also able to have more control over these COVID precautions and safety regulations. I am grateful I get to further my craft here at St. Edward’s.”

The shows were free, and those who were interested in watching could reserve a parking spot through MMNT’s website. Audience members had to remain in their cars with windows up during the entirety of the performances, and audio from the stage was heard through a radio station, similar to an actual drive-in movie experience.

“Elliot Haynes, who is a magician in the audio department, and those on our staff just broadcasted [the sound] through radios,” interim and artistic director Robert Tolaro said. “One of my initial worries was ‘How long can those radios be on before their [car] batteries run out?’ All kinds of questions came up, so everybody had to find a way of making it work.”  

MMNT has worked hand in hand with both the city and the university to allow for the show to go on this year while adding a bit of normalcy for both the actors and technicians. 

“The university operations have been amazing, and none of this would’ve happened without the police department,” producer Michelle Polgar said. “We even had to apply for a city permit, which is not something we’ve ever had to do before. Everybody’s been super supportive, there’s been no pushback anywhere, from anyone.”

Many universities are not participating in any sort of in-person theatre performances this semester. St. Edward’s is one of the few who are giving their students the chance to perform.

“It’s a little bit of a dance,” Tolero said. “We’re always dancing around what the best protocol is to keep everyone safe. We’re always in creative mode and always trying to make it work. It’s a collaborative art.” 

One of the agreements made with the university to allow production to happen is having to take everything down each night. MMNT struck all technical equipment, including soundboards and lighting apparitions, from the field and placed it inside to avoid damage.

“Some of the harder things are the fact we have to set up and strike all the lights and sound every show. Props and set pieces come out, and our theatre is basically a huge storage facility right now,” Polgar said. “It’s an hour and a half to strike every night, which isn’t so bad, but when you have a rehearsal that goes into 11 o’clock at night, it gets pretty late.”

There were many new and interesting aspects of the performance the actors had to experience, besides just regular COVID-19 guidelines. There were strict rules they had to follow while backstage and in dressing rooms. There were maps indicating which directions they were allowed to walk and special dressing room assignments for each cast. (Claire Lawrence / Hilltop Views)

“We’ve done everything through very specific COVID protocols,” Polgar said. “We have a cap on how many people can be working and walking in the space at any point in time. The wardrobe supervisor can’t even be in the dressing room with actors. COVID has infiltrated everything we’ve done in all positions.”

Another new aspect the actors had to grasp was wearing masks on stage, both during rehearsals and performances. The costume designers for the festival made customized masks for each character to match their costumes. 

“We had to learn how to project over our masks, and because it was a drive-in, we weren’t miched,” Chaparro said. “We were already having to project because of that, and having a mask on makes it harder. You also had to make sure they could understand you through radio static.”

Rehearsals and performances weren’t the only areas that were affected by COVID-19 guidelines. Auditions for the festival were all held virtually. Those who were interested had to submit a recording of their monologues and attend workshops via Zoom. 

“The self-taping process is very different [from] the in-person audition process,” Chaparro said. “I really don’t like filming myself, but it’s nice because if you mess up you can just do it over and review your lines again and take the best take you have.”

This is the first time MMNT has hosted an outdoor performance, and also the first time the 10-Minute Play Festival has been put on as a main stage production. 

“The reason we wanted to elevate it to the mainstage, to begin with, is it was clear, year after year, it became more and more of a celebration of the whole department,” Polgar said. “We went ‘Let’s really put all of our resources into it’. The elevation and celebration is amazing.”

It was definitely a sight to see and hear with audience members honking their horns instead of clapping and the beautiful Austin skyline displayed in the background while watching each play. 

Maintaining tradition and continuing to put on the festival shows how amazing the theatre world is at adapting to situations and rolling with the punches when things change. After closing night for the show, MMNT will continue to perform other plays over Zoom, including Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which cast members and directors have already begun working on.