Virtual experiment in whimsy becomes reality 

Zooming into digital performance

Virtual experiment in whimsy becomes reality 

Last summer, before the COVID-19 pandemic infiltrated every aspect of life, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Morgan Mallory had an idea for a project. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we could stage a performance with only virtual rehearsals?’ Everyone scoffed. ‘Theatre is an in-person art,’ they said.”  

It turns out that Mallory was way ahead of the curve for 2020. What started as a whimsy and a fun challenge for theatre personnel is now a way of life for everyone. Everything from businesses and newspapers to late-night television shows is being conducted virtually. 

On Feb. 21, Mallory conducted her experiment live with the production of The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, a play rehearsed and coordinated virtually, then performed successfully with the actors’ first in-person interaction live on stage. Mallory, her co-star Dr. Paul Hindermith, director Dr. Charles Turley, and production staff had no in-person interaction before the one-time performance. After the show, the audience was surveyed to gauge how authentic the performances felt and how rehearsed the show seemed.  

Mallory presented her findings during a March 9 Faculty Forum, “Undetermined Predetermined Moments.” Three days later, on March 12, it was announced that spring break would be extended, with classes to resume virtually on March 25, and Mallory’s experiment became the method for not just theatre, but for education and business around the world. 

“I think we knew things might head this way, but no one expected it to happen this soon,” she said. “And with the shut-down happening so soon afterward, the timing was impeccable.”  

Although Mallory’s research centered on theatrical aspects of virtual interaction, it can be zoomed outward to apply to the current situation. She wanted to know if the theatrical standard of art created in-the-moment and the realistic chemistry between characters could be maintained if previous interaction between actors and production members had not been in person. The audience reaction told them it had been successful. Although there were some technical issues, 85% of those surveyed would see another virtually coordinated production. Actors received high marks for their preparation, control of tracks, being emotionally genuine.   

In the conclusion of Mallory’s Faculty Forum presentation, she asks “What happens next?” One conclusion is that curriculum will shift so that students gain skills required for virtual coordination. That has happened sooner rather than later. “We’ve found so much more to research, she said.