Last Friday evening, the Bowdoin Department of Theater and Dance traded in vocal warm-ups and a house packed full of Bowdoin students for rapid pre-performance COVID-19 testing and cameras placed in an empty Pickard Theater for a staged production of the “Cows of War.” The play, written by Department of Theater and Dance Coordinator Callie Kimball and directed by Associate Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen, marks the Department’s first production since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Production of the play began in November 2020, when the Department began brainstorming ways to continue the tradition of theater while still abiding by social distancing and disease prevention protocols. The Department knew that the performance would need to be recorded and streamed live, so licensing of plays became one of Killeen’s primary concerns. Turning inward for a solution, Killeen found an opportunity to avoid licensing issues—Kimball’s “Cows of War.”
The play, a political satire that is based on Greek playwright Arisophanes’ “Peace,” follows the Greek gods and a Tennesseean who tries to reach the heavens in a hot air balloon. Auditions began towards the end of last November, and rehearsals started over Zoom in January.
“It was a really odd audition experience because everything had to be done online,” said Hope Keeley ’21, who played Hermes, in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
After students returned to campus in February, masked rehearsals began and production ramped up in preparation for the performance. Despite the fact that Killeen had to condense the rehearsal timeline to make up for the extended winter break, cast and crew members such as Keeley found the time crunch exciting.
“We had, I think, just twelve rehearsals, or something crazy like that,” said Keeley. “It was a blast. It was honestly so fun.”
Prioritizing safety, while also letting student performers enjoy themselves, was a concern for the Department’s faculty. Cast and crew members were required to test negative daily on a COVID-19 antigen test in order to perform onstage without masks. Instead of a live audience, the crew placed three cameras around Pickard Theater to record the performance and livestream the production over Zoom.
“Completing a show without an audience was the most rewarding part of doing the show,” said Andrew Treat ’22, who played War, in an interview with the Orient. “Being onstage, not having a set and then making something that is relatively presentable was the most rewarding thing.”
“The fact that they were able to do [the production] in a COVID[-19]-safe way and give the students this experience is just remarkable,” added Kimball in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Kimball originally wrote “Cows of War” in 2008 and revised it during a 2016 production at Hunter College. She shortened it significantly from its original two-hour runtime to a two-act, one-hour production in order to make it more viewable in an online format.
The process of revision was both challenging and rewarding to Kimball, who wanted to make the political aspect of the show more relevant to the current climate. Kimball implemented these revisions by incorporating content relating to the more widespread, renewed focus on social justice in 2021, with hopes to represent relevant socio-political motifs.
“I first wrote [Cows of War] for the 2008 presidential election for the Washington Shakespeare Company down in Washington, D.C. … at that point the political landscape was different,” said Kimball. “[The play] is an ongoing conversation around the issues of race and gender that, for me, are at the heart of what I wanted to originally explore.”
Throughout revisions, rehearsal and production, Kimball aimed to eliminate as much excess content from the play as possible while still creating a memorable and enjoyable experience for the cast and crew.
“I love working with students and the energy that they bring to a production,” said Kimball. “I was writing for specific students in a very specific time and a place, under extreme circumstances, and I felt the responsibility and the privilege of it.”