Technology has been at the forefront of the “new normal” of pandemic life, transforming education, health, food service, and seemingly every other industry. Now the University of Maryland (UMD) School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies is taking its own stab at creating a blueprint for the future—or at least a future—of theatre. Its May 7 livestream of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters (viewable here starting at 8 p.m.) will mark what the school is calling the first presentation of a modified script Nguyen has crafted specifically to be performed virtually.
While Nguyen has made Zoom-friendly changes to his much-produced 2011 comedy/action/drama, co-directors Jared Mezzocchi and Lisa Nathans still needed to get their design teams, actors, and crew thinking in an entirely new way about the piece. She Kills Monsters toggles between the real world and a Dungeons & Dragons-type realm. So how do you differentiate between the real and the surreal when all you have is a webcam, Zoom, and whatever is available at home? Timing, measurements, and positioning must be precise if a virtual audience is to follow what’s happening.
Cast and crew members alike have devoted a lot of rehearsal time to these dilemmas. In the process, they have found these constraints to be oddly liberating.
“We’ve freed ourselves of the pressure of replicating what it should have been in a stage space,” said Diallo Adams, the production’s stage manager (or, as they call him, Zoom manager). “And that’s a good reminder for everybody to be like, ‘What are we essentially trying to do?’ What we’re trying to do is ask the question, ‘How live can we get, and how deep can our human connection be when this is our platform to create?’”
The design team has created digital effects that will take place in each individual Zoom box, and specific features have been loaded into SnapCamera, an app that augments webcam lenses, a bit like an Instagram filter. Strategic lighting in each room is crucial, and the performers rely heavily on angles, distance, and looking in the right direction at the right time. Blocking now consists largely of where the actors look and position themselves within their box.
“I think a lot of it is thinking of different ways to document the show and take notes and make sure everyone is getting the information that they need,” Adams said of the rehearsal process. One of his colleagues created a tracking sheet that functions similarly to a run book, monitoring when actors should enter and exit. “Transferring stuff that we know and finding ways to implement that into our work online is the biggest shift, for sure,” he said.
Even assuming that the audience gets the information it needs, Nguyen acknowledged that virtual performers won’t necessarily know they’re getting it. “The unfortunate thing about doing Zoom,” he said, “is that the natural feedback loop that you get from the actor to the audience doesn’t exist, right? If I say something funny, I expect someone to laugh. But in Zoom, you don’t get that feedback.”
Even with these hurdles, co-director Nathans, a professor of theatre performance and vocals at UMD, has taken the significance of this event to heart. “We’re looking to fill a current gap in knowledge about how live theatre can still happen and some strategies to make it exciting,” she said. “We’re finding ways not just to survive but to actually thrive.”
It’s exciting, yes, but also stressful. The students are obviously used to a very different rehearsal process, said co-director Mezzocchi, a professor of theatre design and production. He frequently reminds them that they are now part of a research project, one in which no one is able to foresee the outcome.
“I think it’s always been a mission of UMD to say yes as long as it remains healthy and charged with exploration,” Mezzocchi said. “Ultimately the desire is to allow students to be exposed to what it means to be in an ever-fluid situation, which actually is going to help them professionally moving forward.”
In live theatre, it goes without saying that things can and will go wrong. And everyone involved with She Kills Monsters realizes that this experiment will likely be no exception. If anything, Nathans said she is looking forward to that.
“The audience remembers those moments,” she said. “It’s not actually in the perfection but in the, ‘We’re all in this together and we’re holding space for each other and we’re all going to tell this unified story in this unique way in this moment.’”
Mezzocchi believes these innovations will be valuable for many moments to come. The skills being learned with this production, he said, represent a way to show resourcefulness in life as well as in theatre. “Seeing both sides of collaboration,” as Mezzocchi put it, should be a crucial part of every approach now, but also when we go back to “the old way.”
(Nguyen apparently agrees: His Zoom-compatible version, She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms is now available through Concord Theatricals, complete with his suggestions on how to maximize the performance using video platforms.)
“This is offering everyone a perspective that wasn’t necessarily required before,” said Adams, who himself had to stand in for an actor with no preparation during a She Kills Monsters run-through. “Actors are also their own tech people now.”
What is happening now marks a profound shift in the way we connect, Nathans said, but it’s not without precedent. She recalled how Mr. Rogers was able to speak to millions of children simultaneously while making each one of them feel like he was speaking to them alone—simply by looking into the camera.
Sharee Turpin is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.