A typist in 1918 wears a mask

In the digital production “LOVE, 1918,” the Clemson Players examine human parallels to a century ago, when the world faced a deadly flu. Student-written scenes are mixed with period news reports and diary entries. The event can be accessed online Oct. 5-11. Image Credit: National Archives (165-WW-269B-16)

If those who lived through the flu pandemic of 1918 could reach out to us during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, what would they say?

The Clemson Players student ensemble took the idea of writing a letter to the future and transformed it into a play. “LOVE, 1918,” a digital performance piece, takes us back 100 years to a time quite like the one we are living in now. Amid a global health crisis, “LOVE, 1918” shares glimpses of life and tells relatable stories of both comfort and hardship. Compiled with new monologues and scenes written by Clemson students, the piece also features news reports, telegrams and even diary entries from 1918.

Traditionally, when rehearsing a play, those involved will read and interpret a published script and start working on the dialogue, sets, costumes and production. However, “LOVE, 1918” is not your typical play; it started as a devised theater project. Devised theater is a collaborative process of developing a story and performance. It can begin with a thought or a fact.

While almost 30 individuals contributed to “LOVE, 1918,” it was sparked with a spontaneous idea from its director, Kerrie Seymour, an Associate Professor of Theatre.

Seymour shared the concept of “a letter from the past” during a faculty meeting. Receiving support from both colleagues and students, the faculty agreed to replace the scheduled production of “The Wooden Heart” by Adam Szymkowitz with “LOVE, 1918.”

“Frankly, I just think [‘The Wooden Heart’] is a live theater play,” Seymour said. “It is a text that begs for a live audience and the very specific magic of live theater.” Because there are no in-person performances at the Brooks Center this semester, a collective decision was made to take on a new challenge.

Seymour and the Clemson Players shifted their work from a live medium to a filmed one. In less than two months, the students researched, wrote, rehearsed, staged, filmed and edited “LOVE, 1918.”

Students did the majority of the work from their homes or dorm rooms, communicating with each other on Zoom. Led by performing arts majors, Stage Manager Claire Sanford, a senior, and Assistant Stage Managers, senior Lindsey Hooper and sophomore Liam Donley, the Clemson Players rehearsed one to two hours for each of the 30 pieces in “LOVE, 1918.”

Working remotely presented interesting challenges for the designers. Lighting Designer Madison Wakefield, a senior, supplied actors with reference photos and colors, and helped them decide which lamps and flashlights would provide proper lighting in their homes. Thinking outside the box became essential.

One cast member, senior Karmen Brooks, discovered a creative way to fulfill Wakefield’s vision. Brooks Googled the gel color that Wakefield suggested and modified the image to fill her laptop screen, creating the perfect ambient lighting.

Associate Professor of Theatre Kendra Johnson served as the “stylist” of this production, rather than the traditional “costume designer.” She, too, had to rethink her process for this performance.

Costume fittings rely on close physical proximity with actors and would not work with social distancing requirements. Instead, Johnson helped actors create appropriate looks for their characters using clothes from their closets. Johnson chose to use black, white and gray to mimic monochromatic photography of the time period.

Senior David Melton served as the sound designer, setting the tone for “LOVE, 1918” through music. He shared songs with the actors to give them a better understanding of the era’s emotional landscape. Like the stage managers and other designers, he worked behind the scenes editing audio recordings. Melton also helped troubleshoot technical issues, the inevitable obstacles that come with working online.

Adapting to new and challenging circumstances was a common theme throughout this project and in real life. While “LOVE, 1918” highlights the difficult realities of 1918, it also serves as encouragement during the current pandemic.

Seymour said it best: “[This play] isn’t built to make us sad, it’s built to bring hope – and even a few laughs, I promise!”

“LOVE, 1918” premieres Monday, Oct. 5. Viewers can access the 90-minute recording until Sunday, Oct. 11. This performance is a pay-what-you-can event. For tickets, visit the Brooks Center website.