School of Music adapts to pandemic with "The Last Five Years" production

Kathryn Witkowski sings on stage during opening night of The Last Five Years Mar. 18 in the Staples Family Hall Concert Hall.

The Staples Family Concert Hall is quiet. There are no hushed whispers, no crinkle of playbills and no last handfuls of smuggled snacks. Only the quiet hum of video cameras. 

Watching from a blank screen, a soft melody echoes through the theater. As lights illuminate the socially distanced stage, virtual audiences meet Cathy and Jamie for the first time. 

The Central Michigan University School of Music performed its rendition of "The Last Five Years" at 7:30 p.m. March 18-21 to a nearly empty theater. Instead of a crowded auditorium of attentive spectators, the seats of the auditorium had been taken over by cameras, extension cords and computers. 

Director of the School of Music, Eric Tucker said the production is unique in many ways. 

"The Last Five Years' is a wonderful show, rarely performed on college campuses due to small cast size," Tucker said. "That is ideal for this time of the pandemic and social distancing."

"The Last Five Years" follows the breakup of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein, the only two characters in the performance. On opening night, Grand Rapids junior Brandon S. Chu played Jamie while Gladwin senior Elena Zelinko played Cathy. 

Despite being an already small show, the stage was set to accommodate COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. The stage is separated by a row of small pine trees in the middle of the stage — creating two individual scenes. Cathy on the left and Jamie on the right — only meeting in the middle when the two timelines are synced. In their separate settings, the characters revisit their collective troubles, and explore each phase of their relationship. 

For Chu and his fellow actors, performing without an audience meant more practice, more emotion and more energy.

“I can always count on that energy from (the audience)," Chu said. “In my heart and in my head I know they’re still out there.”

On nights two and three, Grayling senior Seth Patterson took over Chu's role as Jamie. Patterson said he had gotten used to rehearsing in front of the empty theater but still, “nothing beats the energy you get from the audience." 

“It feels stylized,” Patterson said. “(Jamie and Kathy) can’t really be together anyway... it’s a very timely show.” 

Behind the scenes, the performance was equally as challenging. Grayling senior Mollie Binert was an event staff coordinator and part of the lighting team. Binert programmed a light display meant to reflect the feelings and struggles of the characters throughout the show.

However, the adjustment to a live-streamed performance meant, changes in the light and camera relationship.

“(After opening night) we definitely had to make adjustments to the color (of the lights),” said Binert. “So that they would reflect better on the camera.” 

Binert has done multiple shows with the School of Music but because of COVID-19, she said "The Last Five Years" will be a memorable spring performance. 

“It doesn’t feel as personal,” Binert said. “But it was nice to do something a little more complex and technical.” 

Gladwin junior Kathryn Witkowski played the Cathy to Patterson's Jamie. The School of Music’s rendition of "The Last Five Years" is Witkowski's first leading role. She said there was a personal connection to the performance and her character. 

“I have been watching '(The Last Five Years)' since I was a freshman in high school,” Witkowski said. “This show is a soft spot for me.” 

Even without an audience, Witkowski feels there's still a silver lining to the virtual performance. Those who bought a ticket could tune in from all over the world. She, like other cast members, had supporters watching the live-stream from outside CMU, Michigan and even the country. Chu has family members in China who wouldn't have been able to watch his performance had it not been virtual. For Witkowski, it was her family in Alaska.

Patterson's family — masked and socially distant — watched him perform from a lounge provided by the School of Music.

Patterson's father, teared up watching his son sing from the television screen. For Chad Patterson, watching his son perform, even with cameras, extension cords, and computers between them was, “better than nothing at all.” 

Elena Zelinko sings and dances with Seth Patterson during a rehearsal of The Last Five Years Mar. 12 Staples Family Hall Concert Hall.