Change and Challenges To Theatre in a Pandemic

Image from the University of Lynchburg Theatre Department Facebook page.

Cassandra Matthews ~ Assistant Editor

     On Feb. 26 and Feb. 27, the theatre department at the University of Lynchburg streamed its production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms.”

     This play is a drama-comedy about a high school senior, Agnes Evans, who has lost her family in a car accident. She discovers a notebook that her little sister, Tilly, had used to design a Dungeons & Dragons game. Agnes sets out to play the game in order to grieve the sister she realizes she hardly knew.

      Brianna Yancey, a junior theatre major, plays Agnes Evans. Being that this is the University of Lynchburg’s first virtual-only production, Yancey explained that the process felt different from in-person productions. 

      “Getting used to being offstage and distanced during rehearsals was probably the strangest part to get used to,” she said. “Normally, we spend hours on stage with each other in close proximity, but COVID has kept us apart during pretty much the entire process. It was strange not feeling the energy in person, and Zoom has a lot more ins and outs to it than one might expect. However, it was a really interesting change of pace! All of the actors and production team members were able to get a handle on what we call ‘TV/Film acting’, which allows us to be more intimate with the scenes, rather than a little more exaggerated like we would onstage.”

      Jeff Wittman is a professor of theatre and chair of the theatre department. He also elaborated on how being virtual brought with it changes to the production experience. “Most of the time, theatre is ‘live in the room’ with a circle of energy between the performance space and the audience,” he explained. “Covid keeps us from being physically close, so we miss the audience interaction and the collective behavior of the viewers.”

      Wittman also discussed how it is not just the audience and the actors and actresses who have had to adjust to theatre in a pandemic. There are design-technical students and staff behind the scenes as well. Professor Wittman said, “[They] create the visual and aural world of the play [and] also have to be careful of physical distancing while creating the scenic and costume pieces.”

     “The learning curve is large,” he continued. “However, learning new techniques and skills in virtual programming is beneficial to both students and faculty/staff. It also reflects the real world and what our students can expect in their future.”

     There are numerous challenges that come with conducting a play virtually. Professor Wittman noted, “The monetary investment is sizeable, as specialized equipment such as green screens, appropriate lights, and microphones are necessary. [Also, the] ensemble nature of our work, usually with large numbers of students and staff, is hard to replicate online.”

     Still, Professor Wittman sees that there are facets of the experience that are still the same, even though much has changed. “Unfortunately, the audiences will not feel the same connection online as being all together in the same space – which is very special in the performing arts. Audiences laugh, gasp and cry together – and that is a powerful force within the performance. However, audiences can still move into the world of the play individually, and in small, safe groups via technology and personal devices. . . . [a]n audience can be entertained or enlightened – or both – at theatrical events, whether in person or online.” 

      Yancey is happy with how “She Kills Monsters” turned out. She explained that if anything could have gone differently, she would have wanted more time to get closer to her character. “Anges grows a lot during the show, and I would have loved to dig deeper into what is driving her to finally finish her first quest.”

      “Overall, I would say everyone is proud of the things we accomplished,” Yancey continued. “Our actors, tech team, and directors are all extremely talented, and I think we pulled off an amazing Zoom performance. In an ideal world, we would have been on stage, fighting monsters face-to-face, but with the work we put in, we brought the show to life just as well as we could have in Dillard [Theatre].”

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