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OU University Theatre innovates to ensure audience, actor safety for 'Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley' production

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

A group of OU University Theatre actors performs "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" featuring COVID-19 precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing. 

OU’s University Theatre is safely ringing in the holiday season with their production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” — emphasizing the importance of family and the joys of adulthood in a lighthearted, pandemic-friendly comedy. 

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley'' is a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, set three years later in the grand estate of newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. The story focuses on the quiet middle child Mary Bennet’s coming of age as her family gathers to celebrate Christmas. 

“We get to see Mary more than we ever have in the books or any adaptations,” dramaturgy junior Jodianne Loyd, who plays Mary Bennet, said. “We get to see her grow into a young woman, find what she wants, find love and fulfill her dreams.” 

University Theatre began preparing for the show about a year ago without knowledge of the limitations COVID-19 would bring. Seth Gordon, OU’s director of the School of Drama who is also making his directorial debut in this show, said the actual telling of the story required the most adjustments to keep cast members and the audience safe. 

For instance, to avoid putting people in close contact, the cast will not touch the same props, hug or kiss. Loyd said Gordon cast a narrator to supplement the descriptive elements lost without these practices. 

“We haven’t been able to do (a lot) of things because of COVID-19 … whether it’s a kiss between the Darcys, a hug between sisters, or a passing of books,” Loyd said. “So we have our lovely narrator who jumps in those moments and connects the magic, which is awesome because we don’t necessarily miss out on anything. We still have those elements without them being seen.”

Loyd also said actors never leave the stage, so they don’t have to risk exposure upon exits. She said chairs were placed on the edges of the stage so actors can remain there while other people act in the scene. 

Acting senior Gabriella David, who plays Jane Bingley, said theater is meant to be natural in the way actors connect with their audience and fellow actors. She said COVID-19 makes it difficult to attain the incredible connections and physicalizations that normally come with acting. 

“Normally, most of the acting is done through your face and your eyes, but now we only have half of our faces with our masks,” David said. “Our connection is found in really making sure our eyes are present and are the main form of how we’re connecting and telling the story. Our expressions are bigger and we use a lot of our body to convey emotion.” 

To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Gordon said the seating capacity of the Weitzenhoffer Theatre is adjusted to seat 60 people instead of the normal capacity of 225 people. He said people will be distanced every three to four seats. 

Attendees also have the option to livestream the show by renting it through a streaming service. 

“For the actors, we get a live reel that we can put on our websites and give to casting directors,” Loyd said. “But also, I have a 6-year-old nephew, and I’m not letting him and his family come down to Norman to see the show because there’s a safe way for them to see it.” 

David also said theater has never been an accessible art form as people normally have to fly all of the way to New York and pay $300 for a ticket to one show. She said having the option to livestream theater performances allows for a more accessible viewing experience.  

“I think theater is honestly an innately privileged art form,” David said. “Specifically in Oklahoma, I’ve been to small towns and cities where what we had done there was the first piece of theater they had ever seen. … Platforms like Zoom or livestreaming options are a way for theater to be more inclusive, and I think they should continue to do that with all theater.”

Gordon said the show was picked with the cast in mind, as the characters and cast are of a similar age. He said the characters, who are on the cusp of their life’s great pursuits, are relatable to college students who are also preparing to enter the real world. 

“(The characters) are people whose constant thought is ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life and … how does that give my life meaning?’” Gordon said. “There’s no question that is one of the main goals of someone in college who is coming out of that experience. Some know who they are while others still ask the question of ‘how am I going to live my life?’”

Loyd said she has learned a lot about life through playing Mary as she watches her character struggle with who she wants to be and try to figure out how she is going to attain her goals. Loyd said she has seen the theme of self-discovery from this show take root in her life.

“I have so many different paths I want to choose from and I am studying a lot of different things,” Loyd said. “Sometimes I can feel overwhelmed and not know what I want, and other days it’s so clear but I don’t know how to get there. So it’s recognizing that life isn’t straightforward, and enjoy the journey, whatever it may be.” 

David said performing in this show is refreshing, as it allows her to embrace something outside of everything that is going on in her life and throughout the world. 

“Everyone’s been going through it, so coming to rehearsal just to work on this piece of theater is honestly refreshing,” David said. “It’s a reminder that joy is coming and there is joy in life even in the darkest times. I think if people come to the show, they will be reminded of that joy.” 

David said she feels privileged, as she graduates from OU in December, to end her theater career with such a talented group of artists. She said working under Gordon has made her feel like she is a part of a dream team, and she feels lucky that she had the opportunity to work with him right before she leaves.  

“As I’m transitioning into this weird period of my life being graduated, I think it has been a joy and a breath of fresh air,” David said. “It’s a reminder that I have support here at OU and within the community.” 

Gordon said everyone’s current burden is focusing on the stress and anxiety that comes from these unprecedented times. He said he hopes this lighthearted comedy will serve as an escape. 

“Everyone is rightly focused on very serious matters,” Gordon said. “But being reminded that we’re focused on these things because of the wonder of life and everything that life has to offer is not a bad thing. … All of this (work) toward the goal of enjoying is something that I feel like, at this point, is not just entertainment — it’s a service.” 

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” has three remaining in-person performances: at 8 p.m. Nov. 19 and 20, and at 3 p.m. Nov. 22.

Student tickets can be purchased in advance for $10 by phone at 405-325-4101 and at the OU Fine Arts box office. Advance discount tickets for individuals who are 60 or older, military and OU faculty and staff are $20, and advance adult tickets are $25. 

At the door, adult tickets are $35 and student tickets are $15. 

Livestream performances will also be available for rent through the Showtix4u website starting at 8 p.m. Nov. 20 through 8 p.m. Nov. 22. Single-viewer tickets are $10 per device and group/family-view tickets are $25 per device.

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