‘Cyrano De Bergerac’ was shown this October 14th through 17th at Wynn Amphitheatre. We got an exclusive behind the scenes look at the inspiration behind this Premiere Post-COVID Performance.
Though William Shakespeare once infamously said “All the world’s a stage,” in his play As You Like It, even The Bard acknowledges the magic that radiates through the theatre during an enthralling performance. Movie theaters and museums come close to providing spectators with a similar sense of wonder, however, there is an incomparable sensation that comes alive in an audience utterly invested in a theatrical production.
So, when the students enrolled in APU’s Acting for the Stage and Screen program were told they would no longer have access to the theater, the place where this magic manifests, due to COVID-19 calling for campus closure in the spring of 2020, it was a lot to take in.
“We went from performing To Kill A Mockingbird [APU’s last in-person performance done in February of 2020] where every person in the cast had their head in the game, wanted to further their craft, and wanted to encourage each other, to having to go on Zoom,” says Cami Norman, a senior Acting for Stage and Screen major. “It was a little disheartening.”
Though APU’s Theatre Department kept theatre alive during the pandemic, where they held successful virtual performances of Big Fish, The Winter’s Tale and Pack of Lies, doing theatre in this unconventional format posed various challenges. On top of having unavoidable technical difficulties, there were other obstacles that made it difficult for actors to connect with one another.
“Big Fish was my first show at APU and I didn’t really know anybody,” says Forrest Gorrell, a junior Acting for Stage and Screen major who transferred to APU during the heat of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. “It was cool to do the show, but we were still just staring at a screen. It wasn’t until I got to campus this semester when I finally started to meet people and find where I was fitting in.”
After this unprecedented semester caused burn-out for many students like Norman and Gorrell, the news that the APU community would return to campus in the fall of 2021 felt like a weight lifted off of everyone’s shoulders.
So, to come back to campus with a bang, the theatre department began their first in-person season since the spring of 2020 with Cyrano De Bergerac, a classic play embodying the rich complexity of the tragic yet magical journey true love often takes us on.
To ensure the production would reach its full potential, the theatre department looked to experienced adjunct professor, Kevin Slay, to direct. Slay, who’s been teaching at APU since 2017, is known for his ability to put thought-provoking spins on even the most classic works of theatre. From setting the iconic musical Godspell within the world of a youth hostel in 2017, to taking the notorious Romeo and Juliet out of Renaissance Italy and placing it in modern-day Los Angeles in 2018, Slay brings a unique lens to every show he directs at APU.
So, when asked to direct Cyrano De Bergerac, Slay immediately had innovative ideas to bring to the table. Coincidentally, these ideas were ones Slay has had in the works for over a decade.
“Cyrano De Bergerac was actually a play that I studied when I was a student at Citrus College going to design class back in 2005 or 2006,” says Slay. “I had put together a concept for it that I’d always thought, ‘you know, this would be really cool to put on stage if I ever got the opportunity to direct it.’” Fifteen years later, Slay got the chance to do exactly that.
Now, on top of being a full-time professor at California State University Fullerton, an adjunct professor at both APU and Citrus College, and a writer in the middle of crafting a textbook he spent the entirety of his quarantine working on, he was also taking on a directorial role for the first time since COVID-19 began.
Though the preparation process for Cyrano De Bergerac felt relatively normal for Slay at the beginning, the audition process was anything but. “We did auditions over Zoom and so, as we cast it, I had maybe 30, 45 seconds or a minute with each person,” says Slay. “Additionally, I had never met many of them before because I hadn’t been on campus because of COVID-19,” he remarked. Though casting was no walk in the park, Slay was able to choose a cast he felt confident in.
For Gorrell, who was cast as Cyrano De Bergerac, as well as Norman, who would be playing Cyrano’s iconic love interest, Roxane, this news was both exhilarating and nerve-racking for the actors.
On top of serving as the play’s protagonist, Gorrell also realized taking on such an emotionally charged role like Cyrano De Bergerac would be no easy feat. “The entire time I was prepping for the show I’m thinking, ‘Geez Louise, I’m going to be back on stage with a bunch of people I’m not super familiar with while putting my heart on the line as this character,” says Gorrell. “It’s been nothing but hard work.”
For Norman, who’s had a love for this show since childhood, playing Roxane felt like a dream come true. “This was the show that made me want to do theatre for the rest of my life,” says Norman. “I saw the show at a community theatre as a kid and begged my parents to bring me back to the rest of the shows for the next two weekends. I loved it.”
The fact that Norman’s last hoorah with APU Theater would be in a show so close to her heart motivated her to make this performance incomparably meaningful—especially in light of the pandemic.
“The only art people have been consuming has been via the internet, social media and Netflix binging—easy, consumptive material that does not demand attention,” says Norman. “ I hope people are forced to listen to the words of this show and be taken through a journey of turmoil, joy, battle and reward. I want them to leave hungry to consume and be a part of richer things in life again.”
Though the cast and crew had to overcome many challenges caused by COVID-19 in the rehearsal process (battling vocal fry and an inability to connect with one another while wearing masks indoors and fighting California heat and various noise distractions outdoors), it would all be worth it when opening night came around.
Those in Cyrano De Bergerac put on stunning performances under the direction of Kevin Slay at the Wynn Amphitheater on October 14 through 17. The complex story left audiences feeling equal parts thrilled, touched and deep in thought—causing many to feel seen and heard in a way they haven’t experienced since before the pandemic.
“Coming out of quarantine, a lot of people, especially younger people, have a better understanding of what it’s like to face their challenges alone,” says Gorrell. “I think Cyrano’s journey embodies that and reminds people you’re not alone in being alone. It ultimately encourages you not to give up.”
Apart from the depth of the story itself affecting audiences, the fact that the APU community was able to safely gather to enjoy meaningful art and conversation was another reason the show was a success—especially for Slay, who strove to create a rejuvenating experience for audiences.
“We want to come back from the ails of the pandemic and all of the tragedy and claustrophobia of being in closed-off spaces and just go and enjoy a wonderful night of theater,” says Slay. Judging by the impressive turnout and plethora of applause that roared as the actors took their bows, it’s safe to say Slay’s wish was granted.
As the APU Theater department continues to gear up for the rest of their season, now finishing up final rehearsals for Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, their next play running November 4th through 7th, they hope they can continue to connect and inspire audiences through their work as we emerge from the pandemic.