Mizzou New Play Series brings stage to screen through virtual performances

Cast and crew of the Mizzou New Play Series said they missed the real-life connections of live performance this year but enjoyed reaching a wider virtual audience.

Zoom rectangles replaced the stage at MU’s Studio 4 for actors in this year’s Mizzou New Play Series.

Before the pandemic, actors performed student-written plays in front of a live audience for a week at Studio 4. The series gave theater students the opportunity to see their plays on stage for the first time and build live experience in the mix of 10 to 90-minute plays. Actors performed plays developed in classrooms at MU and in the Missouri Playwrights Workshop.

Using a Zoom webinar allowed the annual series to continue this February and follow health guidelines for the pandemic.

Dr. David Crespy, artistic director, founded the play series over 20 years ago.

“Normally we do this in performances with actors and music stands. We don't have any internal light or sound cues. There's usually a musical introduction, and then we just go into the play,” Crespy said. “The feeling is a lot like a radio drama, and weirdly, the audience just gets sucked in. You start to imagine the landscape in your mind. It's pretty effective and it's a useful developmental tool.”

Andrew Black, a MU Ph.D. student, is the assistant director of the play series. He said that running playwriting workshops on Zoom in 2020 made switching to the virtual play series easier.

In the virtual format, actors used split screens instead of music stands to read their scripts and changed their Zoom names to their characters’ names. Using a webinar format allowed the characters in each scene to appear while hiding other members and the audience.

The cast and crew rehearsed twice over Zoom, then performed Feb. 4 through Feb. 6. They performed 13 plays, broken up across four different shows.

Black taught many of the students in his beginning playwriting class, where they wrote plays inspired by fairy tales. Actors performed six of these in the first show.

“They're portraying their roles with a lot of commitment, and a lot of enthusiasm and energy,” Black said.

Black himself wrote and performed “What Same Sex Marriage Means to Me,” a 90-minute one-act play.

“It tells the story of my life through the lens of a gay man and talks about the changes in cultural, legal and social history that have taken place during my lifetime. I tell that story from my own personal perspective, but also from the perspective of what's been happening in the world around me,” Black said. “Because it's on Zoom, I have people from all over the United States coming to see it.”

Black said the ability for people to watch the shows from any location was one benefit of going virtual. Those involved in the plays also joined from outside of Columbia. One actor adjusted to a time zone difference in Nigeria. Others in the U.S. acted from Washington, D.C., New York, Arkansas, Illinois and other states.

“Being able to open that up to not only the Columbia community but the national community has been a real treat,” MU junior Abby Land, stage manager for the shows, said.

Land also wrote one of the featured plays, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” about a couple during the civil rights era. After writing plays her freshman and sophomore years, she said she missed feeding off a live audience’s energy because of how rewarding it usually was to her as a playwright.

“You sit there and listen to how an audience reacts to your piece. You hear the laughter. You hear the gasps. You hear all of those things that, especially for a first-time playwright, mean so much,” Land said. “It gives you the fuel to keep going. You get a little bit addicted to the audience's reaction to your work.”

To engage with the audience over Zoom this year, the playwrights went on screen at the end of each show for a talkback portion. They used the chat box to ask the audience questions and hear their feedback. While it wasn’t live, Land said this was her favorite part of the play series.

“You get to have a real-life test of how an audience would react to your play, what needs to be fixed, what needs to be kept — all of that important feedback that a playwright really needs to develop a play,” Land said.

Chloe Oliphant, an MU sophomore who wrote “Birds of a Feather,” directed “Fateful Creek” and acted in “DWB: Pandemic Edition,” missed real-life connections with the audience and with fellow actors. To adapt online, she and other actors communicated in group chats during and outside of shows.

“I still found a way to find those connections with my actors and the actors for the show I wrote just by having a group chat and not being afraid to be silly with each other,” Oliphant said. “We're all in the same boat. We all want to connect with each other, so you just have to try a little bit harder.”

Edited by Angelina Edwards | aedwards@themaneater.com

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