SUU’s Virtual Theater Brings Students’ Stagecraft to the Digital Realm

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the paradigm of instruction at Southern Utah University to a large portion of courses being taught online. 

In order to meet the isolatory demands of COVID-19, SUU’s Deptartment of Theater, Dance and Arts Administration has created the Virtual Theater. SUU theater arts department chair Brian Swanson said the Virtual Theater is an umbrella term that designates the website and streaming service that it uses, as well as the productions themselves. 

Swanson also said the Virtual Theater’s streaming service is more secure than other services available like YouTube, so that the footage of the production is more difficult to steal. 

“It allows us to produce within the contracts for the royalties,” Swanson said. 

The Virtual Theater website serves as a landing zone for the audience to both register for and watch current performances and to watch a few on-demand performances such as the faculty screendance “Vanishing Point.”

A screendance is a multimedia production which blends the content of a dance recital with the conventions of filmmaking. “em·pir·i·cism” was a screendance presented as an anthology film wherein each dance was filmed on location at various sites– mostly outside in the desert.

Distributing plays and dances can lose some of the energy of a live, in-person performance, but there are still advantages to the use of technology. “The Timepiece,” a play SUU faculty and staff produced in conjunction with its playwrights, used green screens and live manipulation to replicate and move actors around a rendered background — an innovation that would not have been possible without the Virtual Theater. “em·pir·i·cism” used cinematography to enhance the style and drama, which would not be possible onstage. 

SUU professors of scenic and lighting design Brian Beacom and Kolby Clarke manipulated the video feeds for actors in individual greenscreen rooms live. The resulting performance is something between a film and a traditional play. 

Senior theater education major Mallory Blue directed a production of two-character romantic comedy “Jerry Finnegan’s Sister,” which, rather than replicating actors onscreen to create a line of singers in a musical like in “The Timepiece,” Blue’s livestream play focused on changing backgrounds and closeup shots of two actors to create a variety of virtual “sets.” Musical theater major Tanner Horan and psychology major Sarah Penner starred in Blue’s production. 

Blue reflected on the challenges of producing live theater despite the restrictive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had to adopt a new style of directing– more verbal than demonstrative, so that she could maintain distance form the actors. 

“We did have one COVID scare,” she said. “The actor’s roommate was in contact with someone who had COVID, so for like three or four rehearsals, he was rehearsing over Zoom.

The Virtual Theater has given  theater and dance students the opportunity to peddle not just their performances, but their solutions to the conundrum of performing safely during the pandemic. 

“Jerry Finnegan’s Sister” from the Virtual Theater was more traditional compared to “The Timepiece.” Blue’s actors rehearsed together onstage, but distanced from each other in front of their green screens. They wore masks for the rehearsals, as well as the production, which actually granted some verisimilitude to the performance as it was set in February 2021. 

Blue’s direction was forced to focus on blocking her scenes for the camera. In one scene of the play, one actor pushes the other, but, for the sake of social distancing, the push had to be blocked specifically in order to make the gesture convincing, Blue said.

The Virtual Theater will host a few more shows for the 2021 season including “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “The Matchmaker.”

The Virtual Thater’s season will end with the release of a film by SUU theater arts professor Peter Sham and English professor Todd Petersen. Swanson said the movie will premiere on the Virtual Theater at the end of the semester, but did not specify what date. 

“We’re calling it ‘Far Removed,’” Swanson said. “It’s about a group of students who are in scary situations in a Zoom-horror sort of idea. They are also planning on using security camera footage and other found footage stuff like that. There is a creature involved, but I won’t say who that is yet.”

Story by Janzen Jorgensen
Photos by Mallory Blue