The experiments of doing theatre online at SIU and across the world are only beginning, and SIU’s playwriting program will continue to be a part of this evolution of the art form, both in terms of its aesthetic possibilities and the possibilities for access that online theatre presents.
Spring 2021: The Festival and the Future
The recorded performances of the 9th Annual Big Muddy New Play Festival received YouTube premieres 18–21 March 2021. In addition to the nationwide and international collaborators we were able to assemble, because the plays were streamed on YouTube, audiences, too, were not limited by geography. While none of the performances have yet gone viral, the graduate playwrights’ works were seen not only by SIU faculty, students, and community, but also by an international audience.
Since SIU is geographically distant from major theatre markets—it’s a two-hour drive from St. Louis and a five-hour drive from Chicago—it is difficult to invite literary mangers, directors, and producers to in-person productions. The streaming nature of this year’s festival made it far more likely that theatremakers anywhere could be introduced to SIU graduate students’ writing.
As I move into the planning phases for the 2022 festival with the hope that SIU can return to in-person theatre, I nevertheless do not want to lose the benefits of virtual new play development. A hybrid festival in which in-person performances are simultaneously streamed online would maintain the ability for audiences anywhere to engage with SIU’s new plays, as would creating an OBS/Zoom-style performance in addition to a live production. The latter option, while adding work since it would essentially require two productions, also retains the ability to work with artists regardless of geography. A third consideration might be an in-person festival that is streamed online, and a class assignment during development that utilizes technology to create an ensemble not bound by location. One thing is certain: after discovering the rewards of online new play development, I will not, as a professor, simply let these perks go when SIU returns to in-person theatre.
While the disadvantages of online new play development remain clear—it is difficult to tell how a joke lands without a live audience, for example, or if a script’s final line lets the audience know it’s time to clap—the year-long experiments of the playwriting program at SIU reveal clear advantages. In a moment when access and privilege are being reassessed by the theatre community, the ability to use streaming platforms for new play development turns out to be a powerful tool for rural students to collaborate nationwide and abroad and to gain international exposure.