A digital theater reveals ‘Hidden Stories’ amid COVID-19

Instead of a live production, USC theatrical design students created a digital website that hosts stories from students, faculty and staff about their pandemic experiences.

“My wife and I are both very passionate about our professions and about using our talents to help this country. Yet, we may find ourselves forced to choose between our love and our futures.”

A couple narrates their difficulty to remain together amid the pandemic and relates it to their grandparents, who were Jewish refugees married during WWII in London.

The wife began studying at a USC program when COVID-19 interrupted their plan to get married. Without a green card and with a visa approaching its expiration date, the wife would have to return back to China if she got laid off from her job.

This was one of six storiesfeatured in “Hidden Stories,” a project by USC School of Dramatic Arts production design students that aims to show how some students, faculty and staff are surviving an emotional roller coaster during the pandemic.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts was unable to produce a live production season this year, so they created a digital project in partnership with USC’s Libraries and Special Collections. It begins with a story about a couple who choose between “Love or Survival” during the pandemic. These stories narrate real experiences within the USC community and explore the art of theater and storytelling in a new age.

Tanya Orellana, the practicum leader of “Hidden Stories,” said this project focuses on collecting community stories.

“I think there’s an art form to collecting community stories,” she told Annenberg Media, “And how you tell the stories of real people, as opposed to when someone makes a script where all the characters are made up. So there’s a certain sensitivity that you need to develop to do that.”

In the beginning of the fall semester, project manager Domenica Diaz, a senior majoring in theatre, along with Maddy Engelsman, a junior majoring in theatrical design, co-created and pitched the iproject to replace the usual in-person live production. Since the show was not live,, they focused on a design-driven project with actors providing voiceovers, according to Diaz.

The project was part of the Theatre Practicum course. In a normal semester, theatrical design students design a full-length production in one of the theater spaces on campus by the end of the semester. This was the first time that theatrical design students had to create a digital stage for their shows, according to Orellana.

While the initial pitch included an on-campus component, Diaz said they had to pivot to evolve into a completely online project.

“You had to find it all digitally, and you couldn’t find it in the physical space,” Diaz said. “So, there were a few pretty major changes like that from our initial pitch. But the core of it was always [there]. We want to illuminate these stories from the libraries.”

The theatrical design students found real stories through USC’s library archives and turned them into scripts that would then be published on a website as multimedia stories with narration and visuals.

Diaz said that their project aims to reach an audience seeking solace during challenging times.

“I think that one of our viewers said it best, I want them to feel a little bit ‘less lonely in their loneliness,’” Diaz said. “Because I know that that’s sort of how a lot of students are feeling right now being away from our campus community, and just to understand that, everyone, not just students, but also our staff, and also our faculty are all feeling this exact same way.”

Orellana said she was proud to work with students who were dedicated and passionate about creating a new project.

Still, working remotely on a virtual project had its challenges.

“Usually when you’re doing theater, you’re on your feet, and you’re walking around, you’re getting the blood flowing, or you’re engaged in a room with other designers, and you’re having an active conversation,” Orellana said. “And so, Zoom is hard to translate that energy you get from other humans.”

Despite their difficulties, theatrical design students defied the odds and completed their project.

“We are going to find a way to screen record it and submit it to the library archive itself as a whole experience that you can go through,” Diaz said of the project. “But the story is just like a show — the story is something that we did in one moment in time, and now it’s complete.”

The project is available online and people can visit it within the next year in order to indulge into the digital entertainment of the new era. Students, faculty and staff will also continue to be able to fill out a survey at the library and submit their own personal stories to add to the archives.