ON MAY 1, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down their school and their spring production of The Addams Family, the members of the Lemon Bay High School theatre department did what they do best: They put on a show. But this wasn’t just any performance. With every actor safely quarantined at home, the Florida-based school and home to Thespian Troupe 257 did their first Zoom production, livestreamed on Facebook. The play in question: 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine, a new comedy by Don Zolidis comprised of a series of monologues about, well, that socially distanced life.

Fifteen-year-old Trace Richardson played Elliot, a boy who’s gone a bit “cuckoo” from quarantine and decides to put on a production of Cats using … actual cats. Richardson was cast in the role because his family has four pet cats. It wasn’t a smooth performance experience, though not because of Zoom.

“When you’re using cats, they don’t always cooperate,” he remarked. “My cat decided he didn’t want to be there, and he scratched me while I was performing.” Ever the professional, Richardson brushed it off, improvising the line, “He’s still learning.” Richardson could hear his mom, who was watching the livestream, laughing from across the house. The Lemon Bay troupe did the show two more times over Facebook. “I had a fun time,” said Richardson. “I would definitely want to do it again if we can’t go back to school.”

This spring, as America went into lockdown because of the novel coronavirus, theatre companies and school theatres shut down, but that didn’t stop people from making theatre. Far from it. Many artists may still be stuck at home, but the show goes on, as playwrights create and license new works to be performed virtually on Zoom, Google Meet, or other video conferencing platforms. These plays are being created, rehearsed, and performed with lightning speed.

Zolidis wrote 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine in just four days. He sent it to his licenser, Playscripts, and within the first three weeks of release, more than 150 licenses were requested. Suffice it to say, Zolidis is feeling popular. “It’s probably the most produced play in the world right now. We’re in eight different countries,” he noted in May. The play is part of Playscripts’ new LiveScreen Theatre Collection. In March, as the licensing house saw production after production canceled around the country and, at the same time, an increase in requests for streaming rights to its existing catalog, it reached out to its playwrights and asked them to write a play specifically for online performance. Playscripts plans to release new scripts every two weeks, and teachers or producers can apply for rights to livestream the shows, create an archival video, and even put the recording on YouTube in perpetuity.

Playwright Don Zolidis with his dog, Bardwell, watches the Lemon Bay Thespians perform his 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine. Photo courtesy of Don Zolidis.


The playwrights who spoke for this article admit that writing a play for virtual performance has its own set of challenges. According to Zolidis, because he knew the actors in 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine would have to create their own set and costumes, he didn’t want to make the play too complicated to present. The show takes place over a giant conference call, as a host reaches out to different people to see how they’re holding up at home. It’s a collection of monologues that makes use of what an actor might have on hand. “I wrote parts for their pets in the show and created scenes with stuffed animals, so it’s not a boring monologue,” explained Zolidis.

In addition to these considerations, speed was essential for Thespian alum and playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner. In March, she got an email asking if she wanted to write a monologue for the 24 Hour Plays. Since 1995, The 24 Hour Plays have brought artists together to create, rehearse, and perform an original piece of theatre within a 24-hour period. As productions were canceled, The 24 Hour Plays took their process online; every week they post a new series of monologues or musical numbers on Instagram. These new works, called Viral Monologues, are all created remotely in 24 hours. The creative and acting teams are assembled by 24 Hour Plays Artistic Director Mark Armstrong.

Weiner was teamed with Broadway actor, and former Rookie magazine editor-in-chief, Tavi Gevinson. The ensuing monologue, called “Live, Laugh, Life,” had Gevinson in the role of a reiki instructor gradually succumbing to a nervous breakdown over the course of a livestream session with her followers because her smoke detector keeps going off (inspired by Gevinson’s actual smoke alarm going amok). “From start to finish, it took me two hours to write,” said Weiner. Gevinson’s performance of Weiner’s monologue has been viewed several thousand times.

When writing the three-minute monologue, Weiner didn’t want to pretend there wasn’t a computer between performer and viewer, so Gevinson speaks straight to the camera. “These plays being written for Zoom, where you’re understanding the constraints of the form and you’re leaning into what it is — I think that’s very exciting,” Weiner said.

But just because every performer is separated on Zoom doesn’t mean they have to act like it. When schools started closing down, playwright Qui Nguyen was bombarded with emails from teachers asking if they could present his play She Kills Monsters virtually. She Kills Monsters was the seventh most produced play in American high schools in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons among respondents to the Educational Theatre Association’s annual play survey. So, by popular demand, Nguyen released a new edition of She Kills Monsters in early May dubbed, colorfully, Virtual Realms. The show — which follows a young woman who starts playing Dungeons & Dragons in order to deal with the grief of losing her little sister — requires a large cast, fight choreography, and puppetry (the climax of the play is a battle with a five-headed dragon). How do you get that sense of action-packed adventure onto a platform that reduces every actor to a Brady Bunch-style square?

Nguyen called his closest actor friends, and over the course of an afternoon conference call, they figured out how to make it work. For one, Nguyen shortened the play, cutting all the overlapping dialogue — internet lag time doesn’t allow for characters to cut each other off. “When we did the workshop, the longer scenes felt super long, and these are scenes that never felt long in the play!” he exclaimed. “It’s that natural Zoom fatigue you get.”

What Nguyen didn’t cut were the fights and magical elements. Instead, he made them more Dungeons & Dragons-like. In the game, the Dungeon Master narrates the fight scenes in detail. The character does the same thing in She Kills Monsters (for example, “She punches Orcus in the stomach.”). “We embraced the medium the play is based on,” said Nguyen. As for the dragon, She Kills Monsters’ new stage directions read: “Five windows appear around Agnes. Each has one of the five dragon heads of Tiamat in them.” A recent online performance of She Kills Monsters by the University of Maryland used Snapchat filters to create the dragon.

Playwright Qui Nguyen adapted She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms for online productions.

Playwright Qui Nguyen adapted She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms for online productions. Photo courtesy of Qui Nguyen.

In upcoming productions of She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms, licensed by Concord Theatricals, Nguyen is open to schools taking his script and figuring out how to make it sing online. This new way of presenting the play has created possibilities Nguyen couldn’t have predicted. “It opens doors for actors that could never do my plays before, people with physical challenges or if they were in a community that couldn’t afford a space or costume,” he said. “And if you want to work with people outside of your community, you can still put the show together.”

When Emily McClain, a playwright and drama teacher at Buford High School in Georgia, was trying to teach her students how to act for a computer camera, she realized it wasn’t a simple matter of having them replicate what they would do onstage. For one thing, they were doing it alone in their little Zoom boxes, with no acting partners.

“The tendency with an actor is you want to connect with a person, so you look at their box on your screen,” explained McClain. “But then from an audience perspective, that is very distancing because you’re not looking at the audience, you’re looking somewhere else on the screen.” She’s had to remind her students during their Zoom performances to use the camera as the scene partner. “We’re learning as theatre actors how to be more like film actors.”

The Buford High School drama department and its Thespian Troupe 2971 were supposed to produce Matilda as the spring musical. When the school shut down, as part of the pivot to online learning, McClain created a new curriculum that included having students write parody musical theatre songs about quarantine and perform original works written for the web. For her part, McClain also wrote a monologue for Stranded: Views from Quarantine, a new collection of short plays licensed by Stage Partners. The 21 playwrights in the Stranded series were given the same prompt: Write a monologue for a character stuck on a cruise ship. That gave all the monologues thematic coherence, though educators (who can download the script for free) can mix and match whichever monologues they want.

For one class project, McClain had her students choose a Stranded monologue to perform. Each student submitted a rehearsal video of their monologue for feedback from McClain and their peers. They then submitted final videos, which McClain edited together. McClain notes, with amusement, that none of her students picked her monologue. “I think it was more, ‘If I mess it up, she’ll get mad,’” McClain said with a laugh.

Lemon Bay High School drama teacher Sarah Ballard-Richardson experienced a similar learning curve with her students when they performed 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine. Auditions to performance took three weeks, and during the auditions, Ballard-Richardson asked each student what resources they had at home (such as a sibling or pets) and paired the monologues accordingly — which is why Trace Richardson, her son, got the Cats monologue. Each student rehearsed with a partner, then had one-on-one rehearsals with their teacher.

Ballard-Richardson realized that to make the performance more exciting and less like a conference call, the students needed to figure out how much play space they had within the camera’s range and use all of it. “We talked a lot about how you can’t do blocking like you would during a regular show. You have to use distance to and from the camera to give you more of a dramatic effect than sitting in one place like you’re on a conference call the whole time,” she explained. “I think this generation is so used to using social media, once I let them know we have to use our entire space, they picked it up pretty quickly.”

Thespian Trace Richardson’s pet cats became co-stars of Lemon Bay High School’s production of 10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine. Photo courtesy of Lemon Bay High School.

Even though it was their first time trying out a Facebook Live performance, Ballard-Richardson considered it a success. Despite a slight tech snafu when someone forgot to unmute themselves before speaking, the performances went smoothly. At one point, there were 600 people watching, which was bigger than any in-person performance at Lemon Bay High School. “There were people tuned in from all over because the students called up grandma and grandpa in Wisconsin, and things like that,” said Ballard-Richardson. And the most important thing: “The kids had a lot of fun, and we got good feedback for it.”

Not every quarantine theatre experience requires its participants to put on a virtual performance. When Stephanie Ybarra had to cancel the rest of the season at Baltimore Center Stage, the professional theatre she runs in Maryland, she didn’t want the theatre to go dark. So, she called some of her colleagues, and soon five professional theatres had banded together to commission playwrights to write original 10-minute plays for $500. The plays were posted online, at PlayAtHome.org, and audiences can download the works for free and perform them in their houses. “I’ll give away anything I can for free,” Ybarra said laughingly. The point of Play at Home is to get audiences excited about theatre. “We want to reduce as many barriers to entry as possible, and to engage as wide an audience as possible, so the art form is buoyed by people participating in plays at home.”

So far, responses have been positive. Dozens of theatres had signed on to commission playwrights as of this article’s publication, with nearly 90 original plays and musicals available to download. Any amateur performer who wants to do the plays can also put them online for free, and professional theatres can pay a licensing fee to produce the shows. “As much pain as this moment is causing, and I wouldn’t wish it on us, I feel really heartened by my colleagues in the field, who are embracing the forced experimentation and embracing this moment of transformation,” Ybarra said.

With more and more theatre artists pivoting to video, are these virtual theatre offerings a way to pass the time while waiting for stages to reopen, or is this the birth of a new medium altogether?

For The 24 Hour Plays’ Armstrong, the Viral Monologues project has brought in artists and audiences from all over the world who would never have been able to see The 24 Hour Plays live show in New York City. For example, Tony-winning actor Denis O’Hare sent in a performance from his apartment in Paris. “That kind of genie is hard to put back in the bottle,” said Armstrong excitedly. “The first week we did it, we had 150,000 views on Instagram. That is three to four times as many people as have attended The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway in its 19-year history.” Armstrong hopes to incorporate Viral Monologues into the future programming of The 24 Hour Plays. The organization has even started licensing the Viral Monologues process for anyone who wants to create original work online, accompanied by a guide for how to pull off a performance, both technically and artistically. Also, for a limited time, they’re offering pay-what-you-can licenses to schools, universities, and colleges.

While some playwrights who spoke for this article hope they won’t have to write another Zoom play, others think virtual work can be another form theatre takes. For playwright and Thespian alum Jess Honovich, who also wrote a Viral Monologue called “Aladdin Sane,” these new creations are a testament to the resilience and creativity of the theatre community. “I hope people who turn up for these viral things remember that theatre is joyful. In its essence, it’s driven by a need for community and each other. It’s the only reason we’re making things like this, to bring the community back together however we can, wherever we are,” she said passionately. “The value of theatre has not changed, even if the form has.” 

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