Covid-19 and Catastrophe Theory

Covid-19+and+Catastrophe+Theory

“With our season in the Friends Academy Performing Arts Department, we’ve done essentially the same thing for like 18 years now. But, in being forced to do things differently, we’re trying some new things that are pretty exciting.” – Andrew Geha, 2021

For longer than most current FA students have been alive, our school’s theater program has cycled through a schedule of seasonal stage performances each year without much deviation. After all, there’s never been a need for any kind of radical change, barring now, as the sudden emergence of a global viral plague has forced everyone to fundamentally reimagine how they approach every aspect of their lives. For the FA Theater Department, part of their solution to this is “Catastrophe Theory,” a TV style mini series performed by FA students and a few faculty guests.

The series, which began drafting in September and was initially slated for a late December to early January release, has currently hit a rough patch in production. Elevated Covid concerns are making it increasingly difficult to find solid footing with a schedule. 

I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with the man himself, writer/director Andrew Geha to discuss the rapidly fluctuating momentum of this experiment and really dig into how he’s recreating the theater experience for FA students in the mold of our current world.

As someone who has been part of this production myself, going back to the writer’s room in September and now being called in periodically to act in scenes, I have unique insight into how some of the obstacles we’ve encountered have drastically shifted the trajectory of the project.
I began our discussion by asking Mr. Geha about the current state of the production, which he responded is, “about three quarters of the way through principal photography.” This, while a far cry from the original expectation of principal photography being finished by the end of November, is quite formidable considering the numerous uncontrollable external forces we’ve overcome thus far. He went on to describe the obstacles we’ve faced citing “Two big things:” the discrepancy between how much he thought could be accomplished within a filming day and how much we were actually able to do, (a disparity which he represented by showing a wide range with his hands, then shrinking said range respectively) and the two weeks the junior and senior classes spent quarantined due to Covid-19 exposure. Though, Mr. Geha remains optimistic that the amount of time the shoots have ended up taking will only improve the quality of the product. We’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with professionals who have worked on some of FA’s stage productions between their jobs on the sets of actual TV shows, movies, and Broadway productions. Charlie Martinez, a grammy winning sound engineer and the resident “sound guy” for Catastrophe Theory, reassured Geha that, “This is taking a while, because you’re doing it right. On a lot of film and TV sets it’s one or two takes and we’re done, and whatever the actor did or didn’t do that’s it.” 

When asking Geha how Covid shaped the process, he told me, “We wouldn’t be doing this process at all without Covid… we knew we couldn’t have 20 people on stage performing unmasked in front of an audience. We couldn’t do theater this year.”

He described how his first foray into this format of storytelling and the inspiration to implement it came last spring from his endeavors to keep his newly virtual theater classes interactive and fun despite the distance between his students. For the first time, he decided to experiment with duos of juniors and seniors from his class, having them record themselves in their homes and act out some of the scripts from his 7th grade class. He then spliced everything together through editing. His amazement with the quality of the end products proved to him the viability of realizing his idea for Catastrophe Theory in a Covid world. In this way, this project exists not only to accommodate the seasonal theater performance to the conditions of Covid, but also is a direct result of them.

At the center of filming is something very new to both Mr. Geha and to all of the students involved- that thing being the filming itself. He described the filming process of one particular scene that had been filmed the day prior to our interview: “Yesterday we were trying to film a take that was literally an actor entering, saying one line, and then moving off to the side… but it literally took us like 30 minutes just to say ‘action’, and then we had to do the take like 6 times in order to get the walking of it right.” He explained, “Because if your feet don’t hit the specific mark on the floor, you’re not in the center of the camera frame and it looks terrible! Positioning yourself perfectly is a super artificial and awkward process while you’re trying to do something that you’re trying to make look organic and real.”

Every given scene takes place in a set frame designed meticulously to present the perfect image of what is taking place within the narrative. Oriented for capturing each actor at a time, each scene usually taking place in a small corner or narrow box surrounded entirely by equipment and crew. “There are plenty of quiet two person scenes that maybe are two or three minutes long, but there’s in our case like seven people standing off to the side,” said Mr. Geha. Having personally observed on set cumulative hours of the meticulous coordination required to ascertain the perfect harmony of video and audio for recording a given actor’s contribution a scene, I can attest that Mr. Geha is not being hyperbolic when he says that, “For any 1 minute of filmed dialogue, there is like an hour of work that has gone into it, or more sometimes.” 

Having also been the subject of many of said shots, I can personally attest to the overwhelming difference palpable between filming scenes to acting them out on stage. It feels tangibly more methodical, a sentiment which Andrew echoed when I inquired about how editing has the power to bring footage to life: “Generally in film, there’s a lot of times you think you have a two person scene taking place, but if it’s a shot of 1 actor there’s 90% chance the other actor’s not actually there.” For “Catastrophe Theory”, every scene is filmed like this; while often the other actor will be on set with the one whose lines are being shot, the restriction of only one actor being able to unmask at any given time means that the final product is a combination of two different footage streams. Each actor  performs their lines in the scene separately. “Whereas,” Geha elaborates, “in a theatrical situation it would be a little bit more sharing that give and take, so you kinda have a teammate.”

He went on to describe how the synergy of the acting and the production differs between live and filmed performances, saying, “Good theater performances are very much the actor with the director, good film performances are very much created in the editing room.” 

“You’ll see someone performing something and it’ll feel truthful or really fake, and a lot of the times the difference between what feels truthful or fake in an emotion reaction on screen, or in person, is the timing of it.” “The timing”, he says, “is entirely fake on film. All of that timing is built in the editing room.” 

As the director, Geha is tasked with existing at the core of the production at all times in order to guide the actors and crew to fulfilling his image for the script, while simultaneously maintaining a clear top down perspective on the real world logistics outside of it to ensure its efficiency. At the same time, he’s tasked with attempting to produce a finished product while creating an educational and fully collaborative experience for the student actors and crew involved.

I asked him what it was like to be the puppet master, having to play God throughout the process, (both assertions that he quickly denied, questioning where I was going with this) and ultimately how to manage this “balancing act,” a term he used which I thought very aptly described the struggle between trying to move things along on a schedule,  and having to take into account the wild volatility of current events.

“No one is gonna do their best work if they’re feeling rushed or stressed out,” he said. 

“So it’s a balancing act of trying to move things forward without pushing too hard to create any more stress on the situation than there might already be. Because everyone is trying to do their best work.”

Finally, I asked him what he thought the next steps looked like after Catastrophe Theory concludes. When he physically recoiled at this question in shock, I decided to specify the scenarios of future circumstances- given a future with Covid, Geha said “I have no idea.We sort of batted around this idea of Season 2- I think with our timing right now this school year that’s going to be unlikely to happen just because of timing and schedules,” and that, “there’s too many variables to start thinking about next school year.” I then asked if in a world where everything is suddenly back to normal, whether something like “Catastrophe Theory” or something more unorthodox and outside of the normal format of performing arts at FA would ever be possible as an option. “If this is our opportunity to re-examine what we do, how we do it, and the different things we take on, maybe we shift that sort of standard formula that we’ve always done. Because it just gives rise to new opportunities and new ways of working that create different challenges for students.”

He continued that, “it’s a balancing game,” as it often seems to be within the melodramatic politics of the department, “Because students and families come into school years with hopes and expectations of what their experiences are going to be.” Though, he continued, “You can have an amazing, big capstone experience without it looking the same way last year’s seniors… had their experience… So I think this just opens the doors a little bit to some new possibilities, which is exciting!”

Mr. Geha concluded our conversation with the sentiment “Also, that’s a really long way of saying I have no idea,” which I fittingly think is also the answer to most questions about the future of our current world.