Imogen Albert Directs 'The Last Five Years' for Virtual Performance

  • The Last 5 Years Advert showing cast members in a musical
5 May, 2020

First year Music undergraduate Imogen Albert is directing a student production of the musical The Last Five Years. Disrupted because of the pandemic, Imogen and the crew have recorded the performance and will stream it live at 7.30pm on Saturday 9th May.

Taking place over 5 years, The Last Five Years follows the individual and shared lives of Cathy and Jamie, as they grow together and grow apart. Beginning from the final moments, Cathy demonstrates the devastating effects of a relationship that has crumbled, whilst Jamie revels in the naïve discovery of what he thinks is true love for the first time. From here, the two embark along the same relationship in opposite directions, along two very different paths. As Jamie becomes increasingly obsessed with his own success, Cathy struggles to make it as an artist. With a nuanced and ultimately soul-destroying score, The Last Five Years is a story of discovery and accomplishment, as much as it is one of love and deceit. This production has been created by 00Productions.

Watch the Production

Saturday 9th May, 7:30pm

Tickets are £3 for access to the show via: https://www.00productions.co.uk/tickets

Due to licensing, the show can only be shown once and will not be available to download later, so this is a one-night-only production!

Theatre in Lockdown

Imogen talks about her experience in directing the play, which has been disrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown, and the challenges she has faced, in the interview below.

How did this production come about, what inspired you to produce a musical?

We were originally scheduled to produce this show as the St Anne’s College garden musical in 4th week of Trinity, however due to COVID-19 this was obviously cancelled. I think the resulting production came about out of sheer stubbornness from the creatives and cast – Livi (the MD) and I originally pitched the idea of this as a virtual production to Harvey (our Producer) after we started talking about the possibilities. We all really love this show and really didn’t want to miss out on doing it. Maggie (who plays Cathy) especially voiced her desire to take this show and continue working on it pretty early on, and I think that was really the driving factor behind this. Luckily for us, it is one of the very few shows that would work in this format -  with just two cast members whose journeys are told in opposite chronological orders, meaning that they are only meant to share the stage once in the show anyway. This made it possible not only physically with the distance, but musically as well, as it wouldn’t be possible to string together complex chorus numbers. This has meant that we can really produce it to the best of our abilities, with in effect a live band as each band part has been recorded live and then multi-tracked together.

What was your original plan for the performance of this play?

The original plan for the show was for it to be St Anne’s first garden musical in Trinity, with a dynamic and stripped back production. Again, what makes the show perfect for an outdoor production is the small cast and the intimacy of many of the scenes, meaning that from a technical point of view this would have been possible, as outdoor musicals are tricky to achieve – often with every cast member needing a radio mic, which isn’t necessarily financially viable.

How has the pandemic and subsequent lockdown impacted the process for the production?

It has hugely affected the production, not only in terms of the medium that it will be produced in, but in every aspect along the way – rehearsals, recording, filming, editing, streaming etc. The first thing that we had to figure out was how we were even going to be allowed to put this on – the rights that we already had did not permit an online version of the show, so instead we got directly in contact with the writer (Jason Robert Brown) and his lawyer and managed to secure our own unique rights to permit one streaming of our show. We then had to think practically about how we would stream this in order to enforce a paywall so that people couldn’t download for free later, or share a link with others, and Harvey actually ended up creating our own streaming platform on our production company’s website (00Productions).

The main challenge in creating this piece has come really from the fact that every single person involved is in a different place, and most of us have extremely bad wifi! I think the thing that has changed most is the level of organisation this project has involved to make it possible. Due to the tight schedule, the way that it has worked out is that everything is happening simultaneously, so while one cast member is rehearsing and recording a song, the other is filming a scene, whilst the scene from the previous day is being edited, and Livi and I are writing up notes and preparing materials for the next day. Again, the distance between us has been tricky to work with, as with rehearsals the connection becomes an issue, and delay – especially audio – means that for the music rehearsals we’ve had to have piano tracks ready to send them before, so everything has become very technologically dependant which has required much tighter organisation than usual.

What challenges have you faced in moving from a live performance to an online one? How have you managed to overcome them?

As mentioned before just the challenge of being physically distant, and having to work everything through technology. Things like filming become incredibly difficult, as I can’t be there to see the takes as they’re shot, and to direct the actors during the shooting, so we just don’t have the luxury of changing small things, and trying out different approaches. This is the same with the editing process where normally the director would sit in the room with the editors as they edit and would be able to make small tweaks to cuts, and colouration and audio levels. However, this sort of fine tuning is made so much harder by the fact that for me to properly see an edit, or a shot from the actors, it needs to be uploaded by them and downloaded by me, which has often taken around 5 hours just for one scene to upload. Again this just means that we’re working in a different kind of way and a lot more detail and attention is needed in the preparation. This has meant for me drawing up storyboards, writing out shot lists, instructions for the actors and the camera operators, notes etc, and a similar thing for Livi, creating tracks, and documents to go with them explaining the recording process, videos of her conducting the tracks for the band etc. Rehearsals have also been interesting; often at crucial moments the audio cuts out, or the screen freezes, and there’s no possibility of rehearsing with a live piano due to the delay. What has also been tricky is that for rehearsals we can’t really use the space that we would for filming for practical reasons, as often the scenes weren’t drawn up at those points, so it was more of a case of preparing the actors in terms of their character so they had more capacity to think about the more technical aspects of filming when shooting.

How hard is it to direct a performance in which everyone is delivering their parts in isolation?

It’s obviously been very different from a conventional musical, but we have tried as much as possible to still maintain the feel of a live performance, and in that sense we have gone about the material in a similar way, in terms of really understanding it and making sure it feels as real and raw as possible. We were really determined to keep the show as emotionally powerful as it is on stage, and not let technical issues get in the way, especially with the music as a lot of it is very speech driven, and not steady tempos to simply create a click track and have people play along in time. There have been obvious challenges and changes, for me and I think for the actors too. One big change, other than the presence of the camera, has been that the songs have been recorded prior to filming, which means a lot of acting decisions have to be made before they even come to film. This has been a ‘double-edged sword’ as Peter said. On one hand it’s great to have the vocals recorded before as then they don’t have to worry so much about that when filming, especially as some of the songs are really quite vocally challenging, but on the other hand it’s hard because the actors have already made decisions that they need to stick with, which has also just meant that the recording process is all the more important. This is why we spent a lot more time on music rehearsals - because it’s sung all the way through, we need to achieve character and story through song, something that has been really interesting to explore.

Do you think that any interesting positives have come to light from this change in plans?

Definitely – the main thing is that it just shows there’s a way to keep doing things that you love, and even though changes have to be made it is refreshing to still be able to create with like-minded people who enjoy it just as much. I think it’s been a very necessary distraction from a lot of other things, even if it has meant we’ve been working on this for upwards of 10/12 hours a day for the last 4 weeks!