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How do you do live theater in a pandemic? U-Md. experiments with Zoom-staged version of ‘She Kills Monsters’

The cast of “She Kills Monsters” during a Zoom rehearsal of the play, which is being put on by the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and students from the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. (David Andrews/University of Maryland Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center)

There’s no more durable maxim in the performing arts than “the show must go on.” Yet even that principle has been compromised by the coronavirus pandemic, with theaters nationwide closing their curtains for the foreseeable future. But in mid-March, as the University of Maryland sent students home and prepared to cancel a May production of “She Kills Monsters,” assistant professor Jared Mezzocchi had an idea for how to solve the problem at hand.

Qui Nguyen’s 2011 play had been chosen, in part, because it provided Mezzocchi’s graduate design students with a chance to test themselves in a multimedia-heavy production. So Mezzocchi went to the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies and suggested staging the play as an experimental digital experience.

“I thought to myself, ‘We’re a Research I school,’” Mezzocchi says. “This is what we have been doing calisthenics for — asking a deep research question about how performance in theater can be a part of the scientific method. Can we achieve the essence of theater under these constraints?”

After nearly two months of brainstorming sessions, script revisions, design overhauls and virtual rehearsals, the University of Maryland will stage “She Kills Monsters” at 8 p.m. on May 7, live-streamed via the videoconference platform Zoom. Co-directed by Mezzocchi and fellow assistant professor Lisa Nathans, the production will be a one-time live performance, in contrast to the week-long run originally planned for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

“It’s a big deal that this isn’t prerecorded,” Nathans says. “For our performers and our design team, we’re all going to be in the moment together telling this story on May 7, with a live audience joining us to view it. That’s really exciting.”

“She Kills Monsters” follows Agnes Evans, a young woman coping with the death of her parents and little sister, Tilly. When Agnes discovers her late sibling’s custom Dungeons & Dragons module, Agnes sets out to better understand her sister by immersing herself in the role-playing game. Soon, Agnes and the audience are absorbed into the fantasy-inspired world of Tilly’s imagination.

Although the play is set in 1995, Dungeons & Dragons has since evolved from its tabletop roots to spawn a thriving online gaming community. So Mezzocchi, who worked on the 2016 premiere of Nguyen’s “Vietgone” at the Manhattan Theatre Club, reached out to the playwright about modernizing “She Kills Monsters” with a Zoom setting.

“I was like, ‘It’s funny that you happen to say that, because I’m in the process of making a Zoom edition of the script,’” Nguyen recalls. “It just worked out really well that we both had the same thought.”

Explaining his decision to revisit the play nearly a decade after it was published, Nguyen adds, “What I love about theater is the ability to connect people, from the actors to the audience and with the actors to each other. In this time period, where we’re social distancing and all that, I feel like there’s a great need to find a way to continue to do that.”

In mid-April, Nguyen delivered his new version of the script, complete with Zoom-friendly stage directions, a contemporary setting, and combat and dance sequences reimagined for a socially distant cast. Wary of “Zoom fatigue,” Mezzocchi and Nathans also worked with Nguyen to trim the play’s 90-minute runtime to an hour. Zoom backgrounds and Snapchat filters became tools for depicting the sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-driven visuals.

“I think that there are some skills that [the students] already had coming into this that they didn’t realize were so transferrable,” Nathans says. “They’re already so good with things like TikTok or Snapchat. They spend their lives kind of attached to their phones in many ways. So in terms of now doing a live performance, we’re embracing a lot of those mediums that they’re already used to.”

The actors are not just inhabiting their characters — they’re fully responsible for how they appear on screen. The cast members prepared the “sets,” such as they are, by populating their backdrops (their home bedrooms, in most cases) with personal belongings that felt in character. The performers also sent photos of their closets to the costume designer, who helped pick role-appropriate attire. And the technical crew offered the actors advice on how to best frame and light themselves on camera.

Jasmine Mitchell, the senior who plays Agnes, compared the process to devised theater, in which performances are uniquely collaborative and often improvised.

“We have had to be our own set designer and cinematographer and costume designer,” Mitchell says, adding that the creative agency the actors have been given is empowering. “That’s something that, as a theater practitioner myself, I’m excited by.”

In addition to preparing for the performance, the faculty and students are taking notes to fulfill the production’s parallel purpose as a research project. With the scope and impact of the coronavirus still uncertain, the school is preparing for the possibility that such research could prove valuable sooner than anyone would like to consider.

“If next fall we have to go online again, we’re now going to have an instruction booklet,” says Leigh Wilson Smiley, the director of the performing arts school. “We’re really confident that we’re developing a methodology to continue teaching our students how to perform and how to work in the real world. And, right now, this is the real world.”

To Mitchell and her fellow seniors, who are working toward a virtual graduation in May, “She Kills Monsters” represents a collegiate curtain call that nearly slipped away. But as Smiley emphasizes, the production also has been an opportunity to develop what she calls “new tools” for the students, who will soon join a professional arts community in an inherent state of flux.

“It’s not just about enduring [the problem],” Mezzocchi says. “It’s about creatively overcoming it. Then, when we get out of this, we are that much stronger.”

She Kills Monsters

Dates: May 7 at 8 p.m.

Prices: Free.