The last year has been difficult for the Hilltop Players. They have seen productions canceled for a variety of reasons related to COVID-19.
Typically, Hilltop unveils two shows a semester. There is a “straight show,” and then a musical.
Because of the social distancing requirements, the musical, which was being planned earlier this school year, had to be canceled.
However, that has not stopped them from producing a filmed performance that will reach a wider audience than ever before.
Director Christan Tracy explained, “The show we filmed [‘The Nineteenth’] is about the Nineteenth Amendment and the women’s suffrage movement. It follows the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, all the way up to the split, where there are two parties, and the National Women’s Party appears.
“It then follows a fictional family, the Clark family, which highlights the differences in opinion that a lot of families faced at the time. Often, some of the family members believed that women’s suffrage was necessary, and others in the family believed it wasn’t. It really highlights the pushback that the suffragists faced in their own homes,” she added.
According to Tracy, there were many production challenges that normally do not arise with a typical Hilltop performance.
“One of the biggest difficulties was having to figure out how to use the stage and the props and the set, while keeping a little bit of distance with the face masks,” said Tracy. “It was very complicated, but everyone did an excellent job.
“Because of COVID-19, there were not as many people in our club on campus, like there would normally be, and so we didn’t have as many people to take on roles,” added Tracy.
Because there were fewer students on campus, each member of the Hilltop Players had to take on a bigger role in the production.
“I ended up doing all of the costuming and I designed the set,” said Tracy. “I also took the lead in filming it and getting it edited. As a director, I picked the show, I cast the show, and I blocked the show. The cast was so good. A lot of them have done acting for a long time, and it shows.”
According to Tracy, the filming of “The Nineteenth” has been a “year-long process,” leaving those involved eagerly awaiting its premiere.
“I had actually proposed this right at the beginning of quarantine – so it’s been over a year in the process,” said Tracy. “I am happy that we got to do this show before my stage manager and producer, Alex Surro and Jenna Topping, graduated.
“I am also happy we were able to do a filming of the performance because I have a lot of family from out of town that normally wouldn’t be able to see it. For example, I have an uncle in California who’s excited to watch,” added Tracy.
Stage Manager Alex Surro said, “I am looking forward to seeing how many people [‘The Nineteenth’] reaches. Sometimes, there are family or friends who always say they would love to see the performance, but since it is too far from their home, they can’t make it.
“Now, with the virtual premiere, anyone from anywhere can tune in to watch this type of virtual performance. I have heard of many planning to share the end result with everyone they know, which is so much easier now than it was before,” he added.
According to Surro, an interesting aspect of production was the filming of the show, as opposed to the normal process of live performing.
“It was strange being able to speak in between scenes and really take our time with the filming because we are so used to three two-hour performances over one weekend and then being done,” said Surro. “We spent about a week perfecting each scene for the camera and it was very different than anything I’ve ever seen.”
As stage manager, Surro served in a variety of roles in the film’s production and said his job as stage manager was to help “in any way possible.”
Part of his responsibility is ensuring actors are present and happy.
“I also assist the director by taking her ideas in terms of blocking or the technical elements and making them real,” he added.
According to Surro, the play was actually scheduled to be performed in the fall 2020 semester, but given the stricter guidelines and other factors, Hilltop thought it was best to wait until the Spring semester.
“Christan Tracy, our director, came up with the idea to direct this play because her sister actually wrote it to spread awareness of how the Nineteenth Amendment [Granting women the right to vote] came to be,” said Surro. “Fittingly, the 100th anniversary of the amendment being passed took place earlier this school year.
“The fight for equality seems to always be oddly controversial in this nation. I think [‘The Nineteenth’] is a perfect combination of education and entertainment for anyone who is interested in learning more or hearing information in a different form,” added Surro.
For the actors, filming offered a unique experience that was unlike other performances they had done in the past.
Soon-to-be vice president of The Hilltop Players, Sabrina Grammatic, who also played Lucy Burns, an actual suffragette during the Women’s Suffrage Movement, said, “We usually have our performances live for an audience. Since COVID-19 limited the number of people we could have in a room at once, we decided to film it instead.
“I know for me personally, I had never been filmed in a theatre production before, and I doubt many of my peers had, either,” said Grammatic. “It was so strange having cameras watching us instead of actual people, and it definitely took some getting used to. It was quite nice, though, to be able to have multiple takes for scenes to get them just right.”
Usually, The Hilltop Players host auditions in person, either in the McCarthy Forum or in Dwight Performing Arts Center. This year things looked “much different,” according to Grammatic.
“Instead, we had to hold them virtually, so we did them over Zoom. It was definitely different, but seemed to work out well,” said Grammatic. “COVID-19 did prove to make this production quite challenging. There were lots of rules we had to follow for safety reasons. It wasn’t always easy, but we managed to make a wonderful show, and I’m proud of how it turned out.
“I think what I’ll remember most is the cast and everyone involved. The shows are always fun to put on, but it’s the people you do it with that make it the most memorable,” added Grammatic.
For those who are first-year members of Hilltop, the filming of the show gave a unique introduction to performances at FSU.
Freshman Emily Rosenberg, said, “This film was my first Hilltop production. I knew a little bit about the organization coming in because I’d been following their Instagram page and heard about it at orientation.”
According to Rosenberg, her academic obligations made her hesitant to take on a role with Hilltop for the filming of “The Nineteenth.”
“I actually didn’t audition. I had just been elected to eBoard for The Gatepost, joined SGA, and picked up more hours at my job,” said Rosenberg. “I also had no idea how my semester classes would be like, so I emailed Christan, after lots of contemplating, and told her I couldn’t do the show.”
After many of her friends auditioned, Rosenberg said she had a change of heart.
“My friends auditioned and later said that less than 10 people were there for both [auditions], meaning all the cast would be playing two or more parts because there were more than 20 roles,” said Rosenberg.
Director Christan Tracy later emailed Rosenberg and asked if she would consider playing a smaller role if she did not have to go to too many rehearsals.
After going to a read through for “The Nineteenth,” Rosenberg obliged.
“I had fallen in love with the show, and couldn’t resist saying, ‘Yes.’ I eventually played Jane Addams, a social worker who kept track of all the politicians and where they stood on suffrage,” said Rosenberg. “I also played a couple ensemble characters – Frazzled Woman and the Angry Woman.”
According to Rosenberg, because the show was filmed, it offered the actors a little more room for error.
“Normally if someone messes up, there are no re-dos. That’s what the audience gets to see that night,” said Rosenberg. “Fortunately, the filming process made it a little easier to make sure mess-ups were avoided.”
Rosenberg explained, “We did two runs of every scene – one wide shot, and one close up. If something went wrong in the wide shot, it likely got fixed the second time around. If the same thing happened both times, we just ran it a third time.
“Certainly, getting to do a show with such a lovely and dedicated bunch of people sticks out to me as what I’ll remember, especially since this year, we’ve all been so separated,” added Rosenberg.
On April 30, Hilltop released a showing of a live feed of the full play on their Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/thehilltopplayers – as well as on their YouTube channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXpHk8fPeTsCP-xoS4Wk1Ng.
Viewers can still watch the full play, which runs one hour and thirty-minutes, at any point after the premiere is over, whether on Facebook or YouTube.
As of press time, the YouTube video has 126 views.
[Editor’s note: Emily Rosenberg is the assistant opinions editor for The Gatepost].