It’s hard to imagine staging a theatre production—something so full of life and so reliant on personal connections—over livestream and video recordings. However, this is precisely what The McGill Savoy Society, a Gilbert and Sullivan-focussed theatre troupe at McGill, did last year.
The McGill Savoy society specializes in putting on the productions of the Victorian-era theatrical duo Gilbert and Sullivan. Savoy’s shows amalgamate opera with the modern musical, a fast-paced and comedic performance that evokes more humour than the archetypal tragic narrative associated with opera.
The group was fortunate to put on their production of The Gondoliers in 2019, before the pandemic. With theatre venues left empty in 2020, however, they recorded an online show, H.M.S. Pinafore, which is available on YouTube. Alice Wu, U3 Arts and vice-president of the Savoy Society, described how losing the human aspect of theatre changed the intimate team dynamics essential to their creative work.
“We went in knowing that we might go online, which is difficult because a huge part of the group is cast bonding, making friends, and building a family together,” Wu said. “We dance together, we laugh together [….] It’s hard to replicate that through a flat 2-D screen.”
On stage, the months of work by each actor as well as the creative team come together naturally in a single night of suspense and spontaneity. Online, the process loses that element of unity: Each atomized video performance is stitched together on the screen.
The Savoy’s online productions have their own charms, with actors each performing to the camera, speaking intimately to the viewer. However, Daniel Benjamin Miller, producer at the Savoy Society, admits that the unique creative process and audience experience of live theatre was impossible to reproduce virtually.
“I don’t think we replicated [in-person performance],” Miller wrote to the Tribune. “We couldn’t have. What we produced was a different product [.…] When you’re on stage doing it live, there’s something there, both as an actor and as a spectator. When you’re standing at home by yourself in your room, it’s very different. It’s just an entirely different animal.”
Despite these challenges, Wu is grateful for the virtual bonding opportunities Zoom allowed for.
“We had a Zoom party that lasted until 4 a.m.,” Wu said. “It was a special thing. And we were really grateful to have that last year, but obviously it wasn’t the same.”
This year, as the group transitions back to in-person events, the excitement of the cast to be in the same room as one another is palpable.
“There’s something really lovely about being in a space together,” Wu said. “That embodied feeling of being your character, [being able] to move around and dance to sing out [.…] To have that kind of connection [is what] theatre is all about.”
Working together in the same room has not only brought the Savoy Society closer together as a club, it has also allowed for live improvisation during rehearsals—a part Miller believes is a crucial element of their creative process.
“Savoy is as much a social club as a theatre troupe,” Miller wrote. “But you also see that seep into the performance. A lot of gags make their way into performances from rehearsal.”
Importantly, the Savoy is able to offer students the hands-on experience of theatre production. The ability to connect with new and old community members through this shared project sustains their presence at McGill.
“Especially considering the difficulties all of our groups have been facing right now, I’d really like to see [the Students’ Society of McGil University] step up to back the performing arts,” Miller wrote. “We were all really heavily impacted by the pandemic and, for a lot of people, getting to perform at university is a unique opportunity.”
The Savoy Society’s next production, “The Pirates of Penzance,” is currently in the works. Those interested in joining the creative team or crew can send an email to [email protected]. To apply to join the orchestra, email [email protected]