Mercer Theatre is proving that the show can go on. Nov. 5 is opening night of “Z-4: Four One-Acts in the Zoom Room,” a live virtual theatre experience. The show will be presented online at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5-7 and 12-14. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through Mercer Ticket Sales.
Scot Mann, Mercer University’s director of theatre, said theatre programs around the country are trying to figure out ways to continue to train their performers and technicians amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Two options are to record performances in advance or to livestream performances, and Mercer Theatre opted for the latter for its upcoming show.
“We thought it was important that they continue to learn from live performance, because you don’t have a net on stage,” Mann said. “It’s been more complicated than we thought, but it’s been worth the process because everyone involved is a creative and they want to create. We’ve overcome a lot and discovered a lot of new avenues because of it.”
Fourteen student actors and five student technicians are involved in the production, which includes four short one-act plays. Celinna Riordan, a junior double-majoring in English and theatre, wrote two of the one-act plays. “Glitch” tells the story of four hackers and their efforts to spread truth to the American public. Her comedy, “This Town,” offers a fun twist on the “this town isn’t big enough for the two of us” idea.
Mercer Theatre alumna and professional playwright T. Cat Ford wrote “Out of Order,” based on the integration of Coffee County, Georgia. The play tells two very different memories of the Belk Hudson department store in 1967. Lastly, in Stephanie Buckley’s “Graven Images,” students in an online public speaking class experience a break in the space-time continuum.
To keep everyone safe, seven individual performance spaces and a control room have been set up throughout Tattnall Square Center for the Arts. Each actor performs in their own area in front of a separate camera, and each space is cleaned between uses.
“Having the actors be separate from each other is one of the biggest things, not being able to visually communicate with one another,” said Mann, who is directing three of the one-act plays. “The actors themselves don’t have the feedback they normally have. They are performing in an isolated space in front of a lens. That isolation has been the hardest change.”
The live video format has created a unique set of challenges, including the technical aspects of filming, lighting and live broadcasting.
Tiara Watkins, a senior media studies major and theatre minor, is directing “Out of Order” and acting in “Glitch.” She said it’s been difficult to not be in the same room with the actors that she is mentoring and guiding. The performers have had to learn to act toward the camera instead of the other cast members, and they can’t see the audience’s reactions.
It’s also taken some time to smooth out the transitions and cues since the actors aren’t in the same room, said Riordan, who is also serving as the assistant stage manager. Mann said they are communicating with each other via Google Hangouts and text messaging.
While the production is far from the norm for theatre students, it also presents a valuable learning experience. Mann said theatre auditions are now being held electronically, and this project is helping prepare students for the evolution of the industry. It’s also a lesson in individual responsibility, since they have to prepare and clean their own spaces to make sure they are safe for the performers after them.
“A lot of people thought there’s no way you can do theatre in COVID-19,” said Derrick Buie, a sophomore theatre and biology double-major who is acting in “Graven Images” and “This Town.” “No matter what, the show will go on. We can keep doing and bringing these shows and producing them. COVID-19 can’t stop us from doing that. We can evolve with the times as well.”
Buie said he was glad to have an outlet to be able to enjoy himself amid the stress of COVID-19.
“Before the start of the semester, it was kind of scary because we didn’t know if we would even get to do anything with theatre,” Watkins said. “It’s been rewarding to put something out there and fill that artistic void a little bit.”
Riordan said she is excited to see how everything comes together. She hopes the production can be a distraction for people and that the audience will enjoy it and laugh a little.
“I hope people are pleased with the finished product,” Watkins said. “We hope we can engage with the audience, that they can be entertained and that they see all the effort behind the scenes.”