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Department of Theatre’s The Portrait Project brings performances to life during pandemic

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: November 26, 2020 2:00 p.m.

Students from the Department of Theatre were tasked with creating monologues based on famous portraits for a new, multimedia show – The Portrait Project. For his submission, Graydon Eskowich chose The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet as his inspiration.
Students from the Department of Theatre were tasked with creating monologues based on famous portraits for a new, multimedia show – The Portrait Project. For his submission, Graydon Eskowich chose The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet as his inspiration. Photo: Graydon Eskowich

The current state of the world has hit live theatre particularly hard, and budding thespians may need to wait a while before returning to the stage. Until that time comes, a new project is pushing the boundaries of how theatre can be performed during a pandemic.

On November 19, the University of Regina’s Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance launched a new multimedia show – The Portrait Project. The collaboration between the Department of Theatre and the Department of Film challenged students to bring portraits to life through self-shot and produced monologues and short films that were tied together in a cohesive digital collage.

Kathryn Bracht, Associate Professor with the Department of Theatre, conceived the idea for the project after seeing a social media campaign by the Getty Museum who asked their followers to recreate famous paintings from quarantine.

“This was during the early stages of the pandemic, and people were posting pictures with wigs made of toilet paper and bags of flour for babies,” says Bracht. “It was really intriguing and I got really excited about how we could present this project to our students.”

Bracht decided that in place of a typical theatre production, students taking her Theatre and Acting: Performance in Production course would create their own responses to portraits. Each student would select a famous portrait and have to create a 90-second video monologue responding to the painting from the point of view of the subject, the artist, or other. Unlike stage productions where each cast member has a defined role, each student was responsible for all aspects of their own production and several U of R faculty, staff, and alumni worked together to provide expertise in areas including story boarding, costume support, props and set design, lighting, and filming.

“This truly was a team effort with different parties stepping up to provide guidance for students to succeed,” says Bracht. “In the end, students ultimately had full control over their projects.”

Tianna Chorney as
The Nightmare
by Henry Fuseli
Erick Lillico as
Self Portrait by Tintoretto
Billie Liskowich as
Portrait of Madame X by
John Singer Sargent

The independent nature of the project allowed students to learn many new skills that are transferrable to any acting or filming environment.

“It really is a hybrid that lives in its own undefined category,” says Bracht. “The students had to employ learning and tools from acting training, visual dramaturgy, creative writing, film techniques – and students gained much appreciation and experience in both film and theatre.”

One of the students featured in The Portrait Project is Graydon Eskowich, a first-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student. For his monologue, Eskowich chose The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet as his inspiration.

“The dramatic pose, the stark lighting – everything about the portrait communicates something urgent going on inside his mind,” says Eskowich. “There was so much emotion – and so many stories – I could pull from the painting.”

A veteran of many productions, Eskowich noted that just as much effort was required for his submission to The Portrait Project as would be to prepare for a stage show.

“It took about a month of solid work to put together my response between scripting, finding costumes, figuring out lighting, and building the set. There was a lot of work done with faculty and staff members to assist us,” says Eskowich. “And despite it being only a two minute monologue, it took almost eight hours to film.”

To accompany each of the monologues, short films were created by students taking Gerald Saul’s Experimental Filmmaking course and were stitched together with the theatre student’s projects to create the final product. These films offered a different perspective on the portraits and showcased how personal responses are to works of art.

“The film students hadn’t met us, seen our costumes, or read our monologues,” says Eskowich. “It was really incredible to see that some were thematically very close to the monologues.”

Although the project may not be an exact substitute for live theatre, Bracht was thrilled with the development of her students and their resilience in adapting to a brand new form of theatre.

“We embraced the fact we were going to be remote and found a new way to teach and perform within the boundaries and apparent limitations of remotely working in performance.” says Bracht.

Bronwen Bente as
The Magic Circle by
John William Waterhouse
Graydon Eskowich as
The Desperate Man
by Gustave Courbet
Kaydence Banga as
Woman at Her Toilette
by Berthe Morisot

The collaborative and remote nature of The Portrait Project has allowed Bracht to expand its influence beyond the U of R to international audiences. Bracht has connected with a colleague, Emmanouela Vogiatzaki-Krukowsky, at the University of Peloponesse in Athens, Greece who was also searching for a project for her theatre students. In early 2021, 13 Greek students will create their own interpretations of the same portraits to add to the project.

“It has been a process to orchestrate international meetings, but the Greek students have been incredibly keep and responsive to the project,” says Bracht. “We will be adding their projects to our website – and vice versa – in February.”

In spite of the challenges and difficulty presented by adapting a theatre class to remote learning, The Portrait Project has served as a way to build up theatre students and provide them with new tools to help them become better actors, filmmakers, and artists.

“It started as making the best of a bad situation – but ended up being so much more,” says Eskowich. “With The Portrait Project, art found a way, despite the challenges, and we are all better for it.”

To watch the full production of The Portrait Project, visit the Department of Theatre’s YouTube page.

To learn more about project, visit The Portrait Project landing page.