CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The culmination of four years of study for University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign acting students is a spring showcase in Chicago where seniors display their talents for agents and artistic directors.
The acting students in the theatre department at Illinois spend an entire semester preparing by reading scenes, deciding what work to present and rehearsing. The program rents a theater and invites industry professionals, alumni and students’ family members.
This year, the seniors’ BFA Acting Showcase moved online after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the live event.
“The showcase gives them a foot in the door to the professional world. It’s a big loss not to be able to do that,” said acting professor Aaron Muñoz, who worked with the students on this year’s showcase.
The cancellation “was very tough,” said senior Brian Kim. “The showcase in Chicago for the BFA acting majors is almost like a rite of passage, the last big hurrah of work, a collective experience.”
The live showcase features scene work, with two actors on stage performing a scene from a play together. For the online version, that was no longer feasible for all but a few students still living together during the quarantine.
“We scrapped everything we were working on and had to pivot, like you do in the professional world when things happen,” Muñoz said.
He told the students they were now filmmakers and their goal was to create short films for the online showcase. The new format allowed for expanded options for the students to showcase their talents, including songs, monologues, slam poetry, sketch comedy and scenes from TV as well as theater.
“Everything was on the table as far as showing their work and telling compelling stories,” Muñoz said. “We opened up the gates as far as creativity. Use what you have – that’s the world we’re in right now where we have to use limited resources.”
For Jackie Ovassapian, that meant she could sing. She takes voice lessons and enjoys musical theater, and she was glad she got to show off her strengths.
“Everyone did something they were passionate about and good at. I’m really glad I got to sing,” she said. “But there’s also something to be said for the adrenaline and the live audience aspect of a live showcase that we definitely missed out on.”
Fortuitously, the acting students take a class on acting for the camera during their last semester, taught by Muñoz and Illinois acting professor Nisi Sturgis, who have worked in film and TV. For the online showcase, students not only had to perform for the camera but also set up all the shots, film and edit their work.
“Being in the editor’s chair and editing your own acting teaches you a lot about acting for the camera,” said Emma Anderson.
For the showcase, she took her inspiration from films. She loves Quentin Tarantino and filmed a scene from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by setting up a tripod in her parents’ car in their garage and experimenting with using the car’s dome light for lighting. She also performed a monologue about a short girl who is empowered by roller derby, patterning the piece after sports documentaries.
“We all walked away from this with a lot of new skills we wouldn’t have gotten if we had just done an in-person showcase,” Anderson said. “All this time indoors and not at school really forced me to be a problem-solver and say, ‘I do have these skills. I’m an imaginative person, a creative person. Even if I don’t know what I’m doing now, I’m going to figure it out.’”
Kim is a huge fan of “The Office,” and he and fellow acting student Lily Newton performed a scene from the TV show in three parts, which are interspersed throughout the online showcase, so the scene unfolds gradually. Because the two are not in the same place during quarantine, they worked together over videoconferencing and filmed themselves separately.
“We had to think about camera angles and where we’re looking to make sure we’re actually looking at each other” in the film, Kim said.
Newton has some experience in film, having written and directed a short film that was released in February and was just accepted to a digital film festival.
“Staying positive with such a drastic change was difficult, but a huge part of the industry is trying to stay positive through rejections and challenges. It’s good to know the entire class could withstand the challenges and massive changes and still do our best work,” Newton said. “Although I’m disappointed, it is pretty cool that now I have this video of all my classmates, showing all the hard work we did.”
Muñoz compiled the student submissions and did some editing. One advantage of the improvised format is the students can reach many more theater professionals throughout the country by inviting them to watch the online showcase.
“We have pretty high standards, and I think they are extremely proud of the work they did as an ensemble,” Muñoz said. “They had to not only be creative but deliver the goods. It’s a testament to their work as young professionals.”