Theatre’s first semester in-person after COVID-19 finishes with ‘Wilderness’

The “docudrama” “Wilderness” features an expansive cast portraying six different real families. (Courtesy of Miguel A. Gastelum)

With the premiere of “Wilderness” on Dec. 3, Fresno State University Theatre will complete its first semester of on-stage performances after COVID-19 sidelined many would-be performers’ plans.

Aleiya Kelly, who plays the role of the 911 Operator, had always had an interest in theatre, but was reluctant to audition for a role due to COVID-19.

“So this is currently my second year being at Fresno State, with my first year strictly being on Zoom. I have always been interested in theatre and wanted to be a part [of theatre]. At first I was hesitant to see how the theatre department was going to do projects with COVID-19 protocols, though as soon as we were allowed back on campus and auditions were in effect, I just went for it,” Kelly said.

Other productions at the University Theatre have closely followed campus COVID-19 protocols, with cast members using hand sanitizer during plays before touching different cast members or communal items to minimize risk. Precautions like this put Kelly at ease.

“To make sure each and every one of the cast and crew stayed safe, it is a requirement to wear [a] mask at all times inside the building unless you are acting, unless it was your specific scene. We were very spread out following the six feet protocol, it was highly encouraged to get various COVID-19 tests, check temperatures at the door and get hand sanitizer as soon as you enter. Instead of thinking of it as drastic measures, it was more so made as daily measures to stay safe,” Kelly said. 

Kathleen McKinley, a long-time director of plays at Fresno State who directed the first post-pandemic production of “DARKSIDE,” shot as a live action graphic novel and streamed to the audience last fall, is directing “Wilderness” this December. 

McKinley similarly noted the importance of following strict COVID-19 protocols during rehearsals and performances in enabling the return to in-person productions.

Some “Wilderness” cast members are long-term performers at Fresno State and are excited to return to the stage. Diego Barba, who plays the role of a counselor named Taco, has been attending Fresno State since 2018 and participating in shows ever since.

“I first started theatre at eight years old and immediately fell in love with it. Fresno State’s theatre department is outstanding and well-rounded, so majoring in Theatre Arts – Acting was a no-brainer for me. Doing shows at Fresno State is so rewarding and has provided me with memories that I will always cherish,” Barba said.

What the cast members do have in common is excitement to bring the unique “Wilderness” to University Theatre for its Fresno premiere.

“Wilderness,” described as a “pulsating documentary theatre piece,” tells six real families’ stories, encompassing the vast array of pressures families face today. 

The play deals with topics such as mental health, addiction and gender and sexual identity issues. Director McKinley describes the play as a “docudrama.” 

“The text and stories are derived from real life interviews with parents and teens who participated in several wilderness therapy programs,” McKinley said.

“‘Wilderness’ is unique in the way its characters are presented – [they] are real people [whose] stories are drawn from real-life interviews conducted for the show. The interview aspect is worked into the show technologically in a way that I have not seen at a Fresno State show. The honesty and innovativeness of our production will draw students’ attention,” Barba said.

These elements include projected video, live vocals and original choreography by Koryn Wicks. 

“The production creates multiple worlds: the high desert of Utah when the kids are clients in a therapy camp, the virtual worlds of video calls and the world of the memory and dreams expressed through monologues, music, movement and projections,” McKinley said.

Some characters don’t even appear onstage during the production. Matthew Yang, a sophomore at Fresno State majoring in Theatre, speaks from behind the stage for his role of a therapist named Mike.

“‘Wilderness’ is such a beautiful play that talks about mental health and trauma that lingers within us. The play does an amazing job of telling the audience about how important mental health is and that it can really impact our children,” Yang said.

“What is really unique about this show is that it is really relatable not only to students, but with all different age groups as well. It might make you laugh or well up your emotions, but every part of the play is going to keep you engaged,” Kelly said.

“Wilderness is relatable,” agreed cast member Alyssa Benitez. “Any kid or college student who had issues growing up or traumas growing up will relate to this show. It’s a painful show but it is also full of hope.”

“Wilderness,” written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger, and directed by Kathleen McKinley, opens with performances at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3-4 and Dec. 7-11, with a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Dec. 5. 

Performances will be held at the John Wright Theatre at Fresno State. Tickets are available for sale now at $17 for adults, $15 for Fresno State faculty, staff, alumni and military, and $10 for all students. Doors open 30 minutes before showtime. Latecomers will not be allowed entrance.

Proof of complete COVID-19 vaccination or a negative result from a COVID-19 rest performed within 72 hours of the performance is required to be admitted, and masks are required while audience members are in the theatre.

The production is intended for mature audiences only. Children under the age of 12 will not be permitted entrance.

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