BYU Theatre Sails Full Speed Ahead with ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Complexity of streamed musical performance is unlike any previous BYU theatre production

Livestreamed performances March 31-April 2, 7:30 p.m.

Few theatre classics have stood the test of time like the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera “Pirates of Penzance,” which debuted in 1879. Audiences are still drawn to the music, the humor, the timeless theme of love versus duty — and, of course, the pirates.

In the face of strict pandemic guidelines, the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts has tackled an ambitious production of “Pirates” that stretches the boundaries of a typical performance.

This first and only musical of the 2020-2021 season is directed by faculty member Tim Threlfall, with dramaturgy by Shelley Graham. In addition to teaching courses and serving as supervisor to student dramaturgs, Graham also takes on the role of dramaturg for one production each year. 

“This production will resonate with audiences not just because of its super familiar, hummable melodies, but also for its silly, light-hearted fun,” Graham said. “Although the process was incredibly complex, audiences will only see the cast performing and having a great time. It feels like that’s emblematic of a lot going on right now.”

Graham recognizes that despite the difficulties of dealing with the pandemic in daily life, many people are pressing forward and trying to make the best of a tough situation. “Everyone is reeling from that turmoil on the inside, so this is a chance to set that all aside and celebrate the innovation that took place,” she said. 

More than 30 students were chosen for the cast and crew, but only four cast members were allowed to be together on stage at a time. The production staff knew they would have to get creative.

“It had to be a combination of film, theatre and choreography in a way we haven’t done before,” Graham said. After an early production meeting, the unofficial subtitle of the play became, “A livestreamed, filmed, choreographed, sung, lip-synched, on-stage theatrical performance.” 

“This is the season of brand-new things,” Graham said. “We knew we wanted to offer as many students as possible the chance to participate. We double cast each part so there would be opportunities for cast members to play both lead and ensemble roles.”

Cast members were divided into groups of four. Others joined in for rehearsals and dialect workshops via Zoom. Choreography took place in a separate room.

“After very little rehearsal, we sent actors into a recording studio to record all music, singing and dialogue as separate tracks,” Graham said.

Then things got tricky.

They divided the stage into five pie wedges taped out on the floor, then blocked out the actors’ movements within each space. Groups of four performers at a time were filmed in their designated wedge, lip synching to their own pre-recorded audio tracks. The final streamed performance will consist of five separate videos layered together, so all performers appear to be on stage at once.

“I don’t know that anyone would choose this as their preferred method of producing a play,” Graham said. “But the actors have responded so fabulously. They all had such a sweet, positive attitude. Even though they had never seen three quarters of the cast face to face, they all had the same goal of making people happy.”