The USC School of Dramatic Arts usually holds over twenty live productions a semester. But with COVID-19 regulations that prevent in-person, indoor campus and county performances, USC theater students have turned to digital performances of their work.
One staple in the school’s season is the New Works Festival, designed for MFA Dramatic Writing students to showcase and workshop their plays. The work of second year students is produced in association with the Latino Theater Company, located at the Los Angeles Theater Company in DTLA. Three students, Grafton Doyle, Zharia O’Neal and Katrina D. RiChard, are presenting their plays over the course of three weekends in April.
The first of the three performances is Doyle’s play “Sick Boys,” which follows the journey of a queer boy in a treatment facility in Utah. He began writing the play as an undergraduate, hoping to discuss the ways children and teenagers with mental illness are treated, particularly in lockdown facilities that teach strict behavior modification techniques.
The writing process changed slightly to adapt to an online format.
“When you’re writing a play, you’re writing it for the stage production in your mind, but then when you’re seeing it on Zoom...I had to rewrite certain moments just to make sure that things came across,” Doyle said. For instance, for when two characters in the play are supposed to kiss, Doyle wrote a title card to appear so the audience could understand what was happening.
Finding ways to convey the action of the play digitally was a challenge for O’Neal’s play, “the blood of a hibiscus,” as well.
“We are at the mercy of ethernet cables and Wi-Fi at this point,” she said.
“the blood of a hibiscus” follows a family seeking asylum in the United States after a hurricane devastates their home in the British Virgin Islands.
“A lot of the work that I deal with as an Afro-Caribbean playwright deals with sort of relationships in place, to home to citizenship, motherhood and liminal spaces,” O’Neal said. “Some of the absolute appeal of theaters [is] the ability to have a common experience... a lot of theater is about sharing space and sharing community.”
RiChard noted a similar sentiment in how virtual performances test the theatrical medium, describing it as “a hybrid of theater and film.” She applauded the technical department’s ability to help bring the world of the play to life through backgrounds and other elements, but acknowledged it’s not entirely the same theatrical experience.
“Even with all the technical stuff in the world, [Zoom] will not feel the same as actors being on stage with each other, and feeling their energy, as they say their lines, and they’re having these conversations, and they’re hearing the audience laugh or hearing the auditors gasp,” RiChard said. “There’s just an energy in the live theater that you just can’t recreate on Zoom.”
RiChard’s play “Breaking Barriers” explores the lives of six high school students from various backgrounds tasked with breaking the barriers of systemic racism for a history fair competition project. She wrote the play with hopes of starting conversations about race with students and adults alike.
“We don’t have to solve these issues today, right?” RiChard said. “It’s overwhelming. These issues weren’t started overnight, so they’re not going to be solved overnight.”
While the School of Dramatic Arts has not announced if next semester’s season will be in-person, current commencement plans and vaccinations are positive markers of change.
“Zoom has been a wonderful tool for us to navigate the terrain of this pandemic, but I don’t think it’s permanent,” Doyle said.
RiChard feels that virtual theater practices have a place in the future.
“I think it’s a new tool in our toolbox as artists to use,”RiChard said. She explained virtual formats remove the limits of location and allow her to work with actresses in different cities on an earlier Zoom project this year.
This also pertains to who can watch the performance. O’Neal is from the British Virgin Islands, so her family will be able to tune into the virtual performance from the premiere her mother is hosting at home.
“I think that is valuable and that’s something that should be taught about moving forward,” RiChard said. “I’m hoping that we can take that sort of accessibility and continue to bring that even when we go back to the theater.”
Despite the challenges of the medium, the art is ultimately rewarding.
“Artists thrive with the greatest limitations,” Doyle said. “I feel like it usually comes from a place of necessity, that it needs to be expressed because there’s an opposing force. And I think that when we are set when things are set against us... we can make that decision to go forward. And when we make that decision to go forward, I think beautiful things can happen.”
The last play, “Breaking Barriers” by Katrina D. RiChard will perform on April 23 and 24.