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"The Long Christmas Ride Home" Turns Pandemic Restrictions into Artistic Inspiration

What if pandemic restrictions weren’t limitations, but a chance to think differently?

In a year of canceled events and darkened stages, Salem State theatre uncovered opportunities for true artistry. Their recorded stage performance of Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home” is available streaming on-demand December 3-10.

It was clear by mid-summer that the show would look very different. The question, director Peter Sampieri said, was, “How do we honor this work and the education of our students while keeping everyone safe?”

The answers involved a mix of innovation, teamwork, technology and the humility to try something new, stumble, and try again.

Thinking Differently

Salem State’s COVID-19 task force leadership laid out the safety requirements and provided insight at each new phase of production. Cast and crew members showed their symptom checker app to the stage manager prior to entry, and everyone was tested weekly. Rehearsals and puppetry workshops took place everywhere from the loading dock to Forest River Park, and when indoor space was required, rehearsals took place in shifts to minimize the number of people in shared space.

Salem State’s costume designers crafted Japanese-style masks, worn over actors’ day-to-day masks, to look like a continuation of their characters’ faces. But trying to enunciate through two layers was unrealistic and risky. Instead, the cast recorded the dialog and music in the style of a radio play, then physically acted all the blocking onstage to their pre-recorded audio.

The visual challenge: how to portray a family making the “Christmas ride home” in an AMC Rambler while maximizing physical distance between the performers. Sampieri turned to professor Michael Harvey, who designed an elaborate setup of six cameras filming separate greenscreens onstage, bringing all six images together into one background on a screen above.

For the Salem State cast and crew, some of whom are entering their final year together, it would have been easy to see these challenges through the lens of loss. Yet as Sampieri put it, “As artists, we think on our feet. We adapt and we solve problems. It’s what we do.”

Lessons Learned

Thinking about the students’ takeaways from this process of trial and error, Sampieri reflected, “It’s a huge thing to model, ‘I don’t know, I have some ideas and I’d like to try them. Let’s play and see if they’ll work.’ There’s a humor and a humility to it. We hit road blocks, stumbled and picked back up. And we all did it together.”

Unlike the production of a film, where scenes are often shot out of order with breaks in between, the actors performed the entire play, start to finish, on two different days. After days of editing, the final product seamlessly shows the characters from different angles, as well as the shots of the process itself, to make the audience at home feel more like they’re sitting in the Sophia Gordon Center.

Looking Ahead

Sampieri is energized by the possibilities of these new ways of storytelling, even post-pandemic. He hopes that the months of dedication and experimentation from the entire team will inspire others to reconsider how they navigate this challenging season.

As he noted, “Sometimes your limitations can set you free.”

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