For senior Dylan Murphy, performing arts has always played an important role in shaping him into the person he is today.
With his role as the production and stage manager for the Experimental Theatre Company (ETC), his dreams of not just acting in plays but also helping to produce them were finally coming true.
But last year, his dreams of working alongside Fresno State students to create these in-person productions seemed to fall apart after the school announced that essentially all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the spring semester.
For Murphy and students apart of ETC, thinking of new ways to produce theatre productions has allowed the team to produce and direct original plays written by Fresno State students virtually this semester with “Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two.”
To theatre lovers, the ETC is a student-led club at Fresno State that gives aspiring actors and theatre students the opportunity to begin their careers both on stage and behind the scenes while working alongside other students on campus.
The “Shelter-In-Plays” series from the student-led production will continue into this spring semester as “Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two,” bringing to life four original student-written works to the Fresno State community.
“Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two” is set to premiere on YouTube later this spring towards the end of semester.
The four original plays included in this year’s ETC production are, “Material Madness” by freshman Santiago Batista, “Asi es la Vida” by senior Jose Jimenez, “The Interview” by senior Arashnoor Gill and “Love Letters from Someone Who’s Not in Love,” by senior Emily King.
Murphy said that before transitioning to an online format, the theatre company was used to performing renditions of popular productions, but due to budget deficiencies, the group had to think of a new way to bring plays to life.
“Before COVID, students would pick a play that they were really passionate about, and then come in and pitch it to the board. You could pick anything from a 60-minute show to a 90-minute show,” Murphy said.
“Most of the time you have to pay for the [play] rights, which is around 90-150 bucks to perform for four nights…and then COVID hit and they [the board] were like, we can’t pay $150 to put on a virtual show, especially when you need the rights for it.”
Although this was a huge dilemma to the team, it didn’t stop them from thinking creatively about what to do next. Thus, the idea of recruiting Fresno State students to share their original works was born.
Murphy attributes much of this idea to acting professor Kathleen McKinley stating that she’s the kickstarter for the idea of “Shelter-In-Plays.”
Murphy said the first rendition of the “Shelter-In-Plays” series was a learning experience that taught them a lot of valuable lessons when creating “Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two.”
ETC has been running more smoothly now that their productions have set deadlines, he added.
“It was definitely [a] very chaotic first semester because we didn’t know what we needed to do, since it was our first time doing it [working online],” he said.
“Difficult is the best word I can use [to describe last semester.] It was very, very difficult, but I think we got it done. I think it came out nice.”
Lauren Heard, a senior majoring in theatre technology and a board member for ETC, works as a costume mentor for students interested in the costume design field.
Working in a virtual setting is different from the traditional meetings the team is used to holding, Heard said.
“It took a lot of adapting, it’s a lot more communication because usually in the department, we’re all close together, we see each other all the time, but now it’s a case of virtually contacting people, [and] having to do virtual fittings,” Heard said.
The ETC works like many other mainstage theatre productions and clubs in that they have a set budget to purchase items needed for their performances.
However this year due to the pandemic, the groups budget has been reduced meaning the team must pull from actors’ closets when creating costume designs for each play.
One of the productions that the ETC will be producing this semester is called, “Asi es la Vida,” which is written and directed by senior Jose Jimenez, also known by his stage name as JJ Valentin.
Jimenez’s production is entirely in Spanish and focuses on the topics of marriage and women in the Latinx community.
He said that his play specifically highlights the roles of Latinx women in marriages and how many feel that once they settle down with a man, they either have to stay with the man or they’re just left sad.
“Asi es la Vida,” tells the story of the different realities of various women in this community and how their experiences affect our society today.
Heard has been working alongside Jimenez to create the costumes for his upcoming show.
She said while the designs for these pieces are still in the conceptual stage, it’s always a unique process when creating costumes for original works.
“It’s a lot of drawing from knowing the actual director, writer and actors. Drawing from their personal stories and how they relate to those characters and JJ and I being such close friends in the department, it makes it a lot easier…since we have that personal relationship, I can see his vision,” she said.
Jimenez said he wanted to bring aspects of the arts into the creation of his play and as the writer and director, he was given the opportunity to do so through ETC’s platform.
“I wanted to take the approach [to the play] artistically as I feel it is a very sad story, but as it’s being told by women, I feel it’s a very beautiful story,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez first learned about ETC his freshman year when he decided he wanted to major in theatre at Fresno State.
Before joining ETC’s team as a playwright and director, Jimenez worked on stage managing various productions with the theatre.
“I just wanted to begin learning and I started to grow a passion for stage management and as I became more involved with ETC, I became a part of the board [too].”
Working alongside Jimenez on the production of his plays are sophomore Sunshine DeCastro and senior Alexis Castellanos who is a double major in theatre arts with an acting emphasis and English.
DeCastro majors as a theatre design technologist and is a sound designer, editing and sound mentor and board member for ETC. She is the sound designer for “Asi es la Vida.”
As a student majoring in design technology, ETC gives her the opportunity to improve and put her current sound design knowledge into practice. She said she’s enjoyed getting to work with Jimenez and bring his production to life through the use of sound.
“[Asi es la Vida] is all in Spanish, and there’s just some really cool voice effects that he’s wanting to achieve, where it’s [his characters] are in a dream-like state…trying to figure out how to do that is a good challenge,” DeCastro said.
Although these past year’s productions from ETC have been shared through a virtual platform, DeCastro said she’s still enjoyed working alongside the team for “Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two,” by meeting via Zoom.
“What I miss the most about theatre, in general, is the sense of community. Just having a group of people that I would consistently meet with on Zoom, talking about these passion projects…It’s just a really cool and communal experience that’s been really helpful to have when you’re not seeing people as often as you would in a regular traditional college campus setting,” she said.
For this spring’s productions, Castellanos plays multiple roles in the “Shelter-In-Plays: Part Two” series but works with Jimenez in his upcoming play where she acts as a husband named Rodrigo.
She said the part was originally written for a male actor, but the role ultimately was changed to be played by a female actress instead.
Castellanos met Jimenez in a previous directing class where she expressed her interest in working with him someday because she said he has such a wonderful vision.
She described her character Rodrigo as a very complicated man, and Castellanos said she has never performed a role like this before.
“I’ve never played such a toxic man…I’ve definitely played the mean girl, but that’s different from a toxic and abusive husband,” Castellanos said.
While the pandemic has brought many challenges to performing arts students, Castellanos said she thinks this has helped the ETC branch out from regular performances.
“This last semester it [ETC] really took that whole new turn because we had to get creative and how to do virtual theatre without the meetings,” she said.
“It brought back that experimental design and we also were doing original works which I think is always amazing.”
Murphy said that although ETC is using a virtual platform to share its productions, there are still many positives about transitioning to an online format.
One positive, he said, is that many family members who haven’t been able to attend productions in-person are now able to stream the performances online.
“I have a grandparent who has never been to one of my shows and now that we’re going virtual they’re going to get to see a recorded performance of a show that I’m in so I think that [going virtual] opens up to an even bigger audience, which I think is really cool.”
For Murphy and other students, being a part of the ETC has continuously encouraged them to stay positive in a time that has been challenging for those wanting to pursue performing arts.
“It’s the reason I get out of bed most mornings because it gives me something to do…because of the last 12 months we haven’t been able to do anything and my position, and ETC itself, has given me an outlet to do something that I’m passionate about,” he said.