In the last weekend of March, the University of Southern Miss’ theatre department put on a virtual sowing of The Last Five Years, a story following the relationship and eventual divorce of two main characters, Jamie and Cathy. The play was performed in person by two solo performers (with masks, of course) and streamed online for anyone with a ticket to see. There were never more than two actors on stage at a time, and even then, it was more common for there to be just one character at a time. For a typical show, this might be a problem, but The Last Five Years details separation and shows each side of the story one at a time, making it a brilliant choice for this online, socially distanced format. I, myself, attended the showing on both March 25th and March 26th and witnessed firsthand how all of the department’s hard work paid off. I was also able to speak to Sam Buchanan (director), Matthew Snellgrove (costume designer), and Hagan Harkins (stage manager) and get a personal insight into what went into the making of the production.
First, I interviewed Snellgrove about the costuming process. We began by speaking about what typically goes into costume design such as meetings with the design team, interpretation of the show, and deciding a color palette. According to Snellgrove, the basic, initial design process stayed the same for this online format. However, there were some changes that needed to be made. For example, he explained how they did not necessarily have to consider quick changes since one character was on stage at a time, BUT no one was able to assist the actors in getting ready. Therefore, the designers had to be mindful of the actor’s accessibility. Because there were so many costume changes, Snellgrove confirmed they had around 8-10 looks per character.
I also wanted to get a feel for Snellgrove’s style as a designer overall. Per his own words, he is a very character-based designer.
“So I think…what does Cathy wake up and what does she put on?” he explained. “What makes sense for her character?”
He also detailed one specific scene in which, in the song “I Can Do Better Than That,” Cathy has a sunflower patch on her jumpsuit – a symbol of faithfulness and longevity. He also took into consideration the characters’ careers and where they are to aid in costuming.
Lastly, I asked Snellgrove to describe the show in a phrase, to which he said “beautifully chaotic” since they had to try so many new things. He also described it as stressful but worth it. Snellgrove made a point to applaud everyone’s hard work and dedication, appreciating the willingness to try new things and the effort that people are willing to put into it.
Next, I was able to speak to Buchanan. He confirmed that the show choice was partially in response to the pandemic as it was so easy to practice social distancing and stay safe during filming. Because of this, the script did not have to be changed much due to the pandemic. The setup of the set, however, has to consider social distancing guidelines, such as singer’s masks and separate dressing areas. According to Buchanan, the pandemic also changed the way he looked at the scene and acted. For example, you could be a bit more nuanced with the gesture, as he described “live theatre but isn’t live theatre.” When asked to describe the experience, he chose the word, “eye-opening”, explaining that “there’s something about directing where the director considers his number one job to make sure the story is as clear as it can possibly be…it was really late in the process when I made the discovery that we can’t tell this story in a traditional way.”
Buchanan also made great comments regarding the way that the show had to be approached. He said that, though the story had to be clear, it had to be genuine more than anything.
“For a long time, I felt like I was trying to force a circle into a square shape,” he explained, “And when we allowed the circle to be a circle, it clicked better.”
A big part of theatre, according to him, is adapting and working with what you have so that the show is genuine for everyone involved.
Then, I was able to speak to Harkins. She described the role of stage manager itself as an “interface between the actors and production team” but also spoke about unique memories that she has of her own experience.
Before The Last Five Years, they assisted with The Revolutionists (also a USM Production), which was a totally online format with no direct contact with actors. That being said, Harkins has had to learn the ropes of stage management from entirely online productions.
Uniquely enough, Harkins is a double major, focusing on both computer science and theatre.
“My experience does lie in computer science, so virtual theatre is my vibe…it is so much fun for me,” Hagan said, later commenting on the accessibility of virtual theatre by saying, “My little brother got to watch it all the way from Nashville…my whole family was able to watch the show without being together, and that’s something you can’t replace.”
Going into The Last Five Years, Harkins expected a similar format to The Revolutionists but was pleasantly surprised when it ended up being a more traditional stage manager role. Though grateful for virtual theatre, Harkins also claimed that sitting in a theatre is a unique experience that can’t be replicated.
“It wasn’t quite how I assume it goes in person,” she further specified, stating that the stage manager role was getting closer to the traditional sense but not quite the same: “The only people in the building were the ones who had to run the show physically.”
Harkins also had a unique role due to the fact that they were unable to watch the show and do their job simultaneously; she shared with me that she had the show pulled up on her browser but had so many calls and stage directions that it took priority over watching the filming process. In addition, she had to figure out why and where the stream had technical difficulties.
“You have to think, ‘what was the last camera cue? Did I call last?’ in order to resume with the least amount of interruption possible.”
Making the most out of these unique, virtual theatre “hiccups,” as she called them, Harkins said it was excellent problem solving that taught her a lot.
Harkins also noted how proud she was of “all of the talented people” involved, especially for taking a show and running it with such ambition.
Gaining insight into the production of The Last Five Years made it both a more enjoyable experience for me and gave me a greater appreciation for everything the theatre department does, especially finding ways to make it work or “fix it” during a pandemic. The enthusiasm of everyone in the show is phenomenal, and it’s easy to tell they are all hardworking and proud of what they do. My own personal advice: Keep an eye out for future productions at USM and go when you can! I’ve never attended one that wasn’t a good experience.