Lifting the Curtain: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Virtual Events

It is a two-man show.  

That's the best way to describe the lead producers behind a continuous stream of virtual events at St. Michael's College School (SMCS) since COVID-19's entrance, stage left. 

With Centre for the Arts musical and drama productions paused over the last 13 months, Steven Cline, Theatre Manager and Matthew Sirna, Theatre Technical Director, had to pivot sharply themselves.  

Both have been wearing multiple, new hats while pushing new buttons --- ever since. 

SMCS Theatre staff, Steven Cline and Matthew Sirna

St. Michael's College School's Theatre Manager, Steven Cline (left) and Theatre Technical Director, Matthew Sirna (right).

"Everything has had to be envisioned anew for a virtual presentation to maintain the spirit and message of in-person events," says Cline, who was near the end of a four-month sabbatical when the global pandemic struck. "The technical preparation for each event has been different for almost every unique event style." 

By the time the curtain descends on the 2020-21 academic year, SMCS will have presented more than 60 events entirely online. That's over six events per month on average --- more than doubling the number of events organized during a typical year at the school.  

"Our role begins when an event is being developed as an idea to help determine the best way to present the event," says Cline.  

SMCS Theatre Manager, Steven Cline running a virtual event from the school.

Steven Cline, St. Michael’s College School Theatre Manager, at the controls during one of several virtual events he has helped produce at SMCS this year. 

The responsibilities then grow and multiply to include: location scouting, filming, editing, online registration, event flow and ordering, scripting, production equipment procurement, music and photo sourcing, practice runs, scheduling, live event management, post-production --- among others. 

"The adjustment to virtual events has allowed us to really lean on our transferable skills," says Sirna, now in this fifth year at SMCS. "Not only do we have skills in theatre that transfer to a film and television setting, but we also find ourselves taking on projects and roles of a greater scope than we would in a non-pandemic season of events.”  

As an example, "I usually am nowhere near registration or survey for data compilation," Sirna continues. "But with our Zoom events, I have found myself taking on that role as one of the people who manage the event tools to provide analytics and feedback for future events."  

Theatre Technical Director, Matthew Sirna running a virtual event at SMCS

Video editing is among several new skills Matthew Sirna, SMCS Theatre Technical Director, says he has added to his repertoire because of virtual event production duties.

The variety, scope, and goal of each event --- especially with restricted in-school building access during lockdowns and a complete reliance on technology in separate locations --- has meant a sustained focus on planning, details, and precision --- to ensure successful execution. 

"Some of the more complex events require out-of-the-box thinking such as the Remembrance Day Assembly and the Archangel’s Den," Cline continues. "This required specialized equipment to manage the five presenting teams, five judges, and hosts in a production environment where the teams could not interact or watch the other teams' presentations!" 

Whether conveying important information in an interactive format, showcasing student achievements, celebrating mass, or introducing the school to new families, the margin for error in an entirely virtual environment --- where audience engagement is at a premium and screen fatigue a reality --- is slim. 

A behind the scenes look at a virtual mass from the SMCS Chapel

A behind-the-camera perspective on the technical set-up of a mass celebration from the SMCS chapel, for presentation online.

"What one can get away with in a live performance is something that, with the full weight of a camera filming you, has to be re-shot numerous times to get it right when presenting a livestreamed version of the same event," says Cline. 

For the production duo, juggling multiple moving parts across various school departments, different audiences, and via multi-media platforms for each virtual event, also offers benefits. 

"I really like having the option for more polished presentation," says Sirna. "It brings me great joy when something looks really good, or I find a good piece of music, or something happens to line up in a really visually and audibly convenient way." 

The control room, where theatre staff at SMCS put on virtual events.

Presenting the 2021 Archangel's Den Alumni Entrepreneur Contest as an entirely virtual event involved re-imagining the setup and evaluating new technology options.

Cline adds, "By providing our events, along with traditional school functions such as parent-teacher conferences, the St. Michael’s community can fully participate. There are members of our community who may not have had access to our on-site events, either due to geographic location, schedule, or event burnout. For the past year, people have been able to participate no matter where they are!" 

Both also agree, the volume and range of virtual productions have provided another positive --- increased opportunities for collaboration and integration across school departments and with external stakeholders. 

A two-man show, with a vast supporting cast. 

VIRTUAL EVENTS: FAST FACTS

30,000+ Total meetings via Zoom at SMCS (including virtual event meetings)
23,000+ Total views (live and post)
5,300+ Most views of a single virtual event
2 hours 53 minutes Duration of longest virtual event
60+ Virtual events produced in 2020-21 academic year
16+ Virtual events organized by SMCS Advancement