Canvey Drama group’s Covid Nativity Play (an online lockdown play)

Cast & Crew Theatre Workshop, the Canvey based amateur theatre group, usually performs three live productions each year, but 2020 was a year to change all of that. It was a year that made us all think differently if we wanted to come together as a group as well as to entertain the public. The group had just finished filming a zoom play on the 24th November 2020, when I approached the committee about producing “A Covid Nativity Play”, which was a tongue in cheek retelling of the Nativity story told in a time of a pandemic. The problem we had was that I wanted to release it to the public the week before Christmas, which did not leave much time to write the play, film it, and produce the performance. All I had of a script was an outline and one or two scenes written.

Rob Simmons, our late Chairman and founder, had always said to me that he was proud that the group was willing to try different things, and to me the memory of his words were somehow guidance that this should be done. The problem we had was that we had no video camera, no recording studio, no experience, and in Essex, we were under Covid Tier 2 restrictions, which meant that we were only allowed to meet outdoors. We did however have the most important thing of all and something that drives all amateur theatre groups throughout the world, enthusiasm, and a desire to let the show go on!

The actors themselves were shown the script, hot off the press, on the 1st December, and were cast that same day, with instructions to obtain their own costumes by the following week. The cast’s second and only other Zoom rehearsal was on the 8th December, with filming due the weekend following that date. I had thought that maybe I could film it over the weekend with a green screen thrown over my garden fence, however the British weather is something that can never be relied upon, and I was fortunate that the group owned a large tent that I was able to erect in my garden. It was a rainy weekend, and quite windy on the Sunday so was most definitely the correct thing to do.

The majority of the filming was done over this weekend, and the actors turned up one at a time to a published schedule, and only one actor at a time. This meant that the actors had to visualise where the other characters were so they knew which way to turn when interacting with them. At the time of filming, we had two of the cast self-isolating, so I had to recast one person and the other lead character had to film his scenes in his house using his mobile phone and using my green screen. The mobile phone filming was in fact a very good way to film and had the benefit of better sound quality as it was indoors, with no external sound of wind, rain, or passing traffic. As this was going to be filmed remotely, I had provided detailed instructions of the type of shots needed, how the acting should proceed, and other detail regarding the technical aspects. This might not be possible for all actors, however we had an experienced actor who knew what was needed, and any technical problems were overcome. 

The filming in the tent was actually achieved using an SLR camera which had a video shooting mode, and the output from this fed directly in to a laptop as a video capture device for storing. Theatre lighting was also erected inside the tent although this was only needed for the filming of one of the actors who was only available in the evening. Under daylight conditions, the tent allowed plenty of obscured lght in to the tent, which produced good lighting. The theatre lights, of course produced a different colour to the scene, so had to be compensated for post processing as the character (one of the angels) did stand out somewhat. My inexperience in post-production colourisation meant that the finished article was not perfect, but I felt acceptable.

The post-production software was the thing that made everything possible and although it was the free version of a purchasable professional system, was more than capable for the requirements of this production. In fact, I was only limited by my ability to use the tool. Youtube demonstration videos came to the rescue to provide the necessary training to give me an idea of how to achieve affects that were necessary, and soon I was able to discover how easy it was to position all three angels, who were shot separately, in to a final scene.

The main job of the post-production software was to remove the green screen digitally and replace them with “backdrops”, which were copyright free images found on the internet. I also found that people who had copyright images, if contacted, were generally also happy for me to use their images in this production. Many images contained modern parts to them, for example, lights, gas pipes, electricity cables, but these could be “removed” using image editing software.

The post-production software was also used to remove the rumble of nearby traffic, the patter of rain on the tent, and generally clean up the sound. 

The list of essential equipment that I actually used is quite small and most groups would be able to beg or borrow most of it, so monetary outlay should not be a barrier.

  • Laptop
  • USB Microphone
  • SLR Camera
  • Camera Phone
  • Green screen
  • Free Post-processing software (Davinci Resolve)

So, if you were thinking about producing a recorded performance, there is nothing holding you back, apart from your own imagination. Maybe try a simple skit, read a poem, sing a song, or just let your public know what you are doing, and let them all know that you will be back, stronger than ever.

This play is available free to view on Youtube via our website www.CastAndCrew.org.uk or our Facebook page @CastAndCrewUk.