Despite a global pandemic that has cleared Pitt campuses of most faculty and students, the curtain will still rise this summer at the Department of Theatre Arts and the University of Pittsburgh Stages.
Twenty-three undergraduate students and alumni, back at home in states throughout the Northeast, have been busy planning, designing, building and rehearsing for “She Kills Monsters,” a popular drama-comedy set in a real and imaginary game world.
New York takes notice
When New York Times theater writer Elisabeth Vincentelli got wind that Pitt Stages was mounting the new version of “She Kills Monsters,” she began attending virtual production meetings and interviewing those involved. Her article on the play and its impact ran in the July 2 issue of New York Times Magazine.
Rewritten for online production at the start of the pandemic by playwright Qui Nguyen, this version is called “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms.” Pitt Stages will mount its production via livestream on Sunday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m., followed by a talk-back session with the actors. Free tickets are available online, and a link to the viewing platform will be sent with the confirmation email. The performance will be recorded and accessible after Sunday for viewing through July 26 for a small admission fee.
The play tells the story of high school student Agnes, who is dealing with the death of her younger sister, Tilly, through fantasy role-playing games. In the game world, Agnes learns about Tilly’s struggles, including how she dealt with her sexuality.
A virtual play is a first for theatre arts, part of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and the experience has not been without its challenges. While productions are usually staffed by students working on lighting, design, stage management and other tasks, some of those roles have needed to be reassigned.
The lighting students, for instance, have been working on the streaming portion, and department chair Annmarie Duggan said that’s been the biggest learning curve.
“The tech team is under the most stress,” Duggan said. “The student stage managers have really kicked it up a notch. And it’s been a challenge, given that we’re working within different time zones.”
Design students have built background panels that mimic comic book art and have fashioned props like swords and shields from cardboard. During daily two-hour rehearsals over Skype, cast and crew alike learned to work with green screens—some donated from Pitt’s School of Medicine—which were shipped to cast members throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, New York, Maryland and West Virginia. There is no costume designer, so cast members are rummaging through their own closets.
“Here, how would this work?” they say, holding up clothing for Pitt costume consultant K.J. Gilmer to view via cell phone.
“We were fortunate the playwright did this,” said Duggan of the rewriting of “She Kills Monsters.” “The cost of the rights was reasonable and we’re hoping to get some good views.”
Pitt Stages also mounted “Monsters” in 2018, including one well-received performance at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh.
Pitt alumna Ariana Starkman (A&S ’20), who played Tilly during that run, is returning again in the featured role.
“This feels entirely different,” she said. “There aren’t those backstage bonding experiences. But Tilly and her story still live in me and I still feel the same excitement.”
Rather than sensing live bodies in the rows of seats just beyond the floodlights and hearing their reaction to the performance, Starkman and the others act to a tiny dot on their computer screens and see their castmates and themselves on a screen in their periphery.
“I’m a physical actor who loves getting a feel for the theater space, feeling the floor and seeing everyone take up space,” Starkman said. “Normally, there's a different energy in the theater with each new audience that changes the performance slightly. The degree of impact of the audience changes depending on the play and production, but it's always a factor to some degree.“
Nonetheless, Starkman says the cast acts as its own audience, laughing, listening and sending messages in chat.
Lecturer Ricardo Vila-Roger, one of the play’s directors, said that with actors everywhere not being able to share a stage during the current global public health crisis, there’s another upside.
“Lots of professional theater companies are live-streaming but they’re not adding the design component,” he said. “Our design students are designing in a new area and are learning valuable skills they may need going forward. We’re all learning this together.”
“This is also filling a void in a lot of their summer plans,” added co-director and Teaching Artist Kelly Trumbull. She says many students usually work in summer stock, but all those plays were canceled. “This gives them the opportunity to work, to do what they love,” she said.
As for Duggan, she hopes the virtual production gives incoming Pitt theater students hope.
“Yes, this department is working. You will get experience,” she said.
And while artists across the country who are passionate about their craft “see it slipping through their fingers,” she said theatre has a history of always coming back.
“I want the new students to be part of the resurgence of theatre,” she said. “Theatre won’t have to be rebuilt. It’s just on pause.”