Taking Rural Playwriting International
In March 2020, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIU) went into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I head the school’s three-year MFA playwriting program, and every spring I produce the Big Muddy New Play Festival, where graduating playwrights get a thesis production and first- and second-year playwrights get a staged reading of their full-length plays. In spring of 2020, with SIU’s annual new play festival about to kick off, the MFA playwriting program was left in the lurch. COVID-19 and the scramble to move courses online and to graduate our third-year MFAs canceled the entire festival.
A year later, schooling still online, the festival did not meet this same fate. Based on twelve months of experimentation, my students and I were able to develop a streaming festival. Our 2021 edition of the Big Muddy New Play Festival, presented on YouTube, brought together over forty artists across eight time zones to collaborate with our five graduate student playwrights. For the festival program, we created an online interactive map to help audiences visualize the range of the artists involved. The international ensemble we gathered showed how open-access software and streaming platforms could help students at our rural university transcend our limited geography.
Our experimentation with new play development online had four distinct phases. In summer 2020, we developed a combination of software that allowed for streaming productions. In fall 2020, we produced monthly evenings of livestreamed new short plays as well as private recorded readings of full-length plays in process. These innovations led to the planning phase in winter 2021 for a virtual Big Muddy New Play Festival and ultimately to the productions of the festival in March 2021.
Summer 2020: Experimenting with Online New Play Development
After our spring 2020 new play festival was canceled, the rising third- and second-year playwrights wanted to produce their scratched staged readings online. Thus, in summer 2020 four playwriting students and I decided to experiment with the virtual possibilities of online new play development. MFA student Dustin Hageland took the lead in terms of technology, combining Zoom, Open Broadcast Software (OBS), Voicemeeter-Banana, and Virtual Audio Cable to then stream on a newly created SIU New Play Lab YouTube Channel. This allowed us to create staged readings of shows that included not just “heads in boxes” but visuals alongside the boxes as well as pre-show and post-show music.
Our first experiment was with one of my scripts that had been produced in-person at Ball State University (BSU) in fall 2019 under the direction of BSU student Sarah King. Since the production had already happened, we could use production stills alongside the “heads in boxes” presented by Zoom. We reasoned that if this experiment proved disastrous, it would be my script—that is, a professor’s, not a student’s—suffering the consequences. Though we learned much in the subsequent academic year, this first trial was successful overall, and each of the four graduate student’s scripts were subsequently streamed this way over the course of the summer. These streams looked much like what professional theatres had figured out at the time—similarities that provided us proof of concept.
Fall 2020: Continuing to Experiment with Online New Play Development
In fall 2020, with the same four graduate playwriting students from summer as well as a new first-year MFA playwright and a few interested undergraduates, we used the same mix of technology to create evenings of short new plays streamed, but performed live, as well as private recordings of in-progress full-length plays.
During regular face-to-face academic years, the MFA students in playwriting at SIU are asked to produce a monthly script-in-hand, minimal-tech evening of short plays called Big Muddy Shorts. The exigencies of COVID changed our modality, but not our objectives. For these evenings, we wrote specifically for the new Zoom/OBS medium, and Hageland—now working on his thesis play—took on the role of technical director. We found that he could have all the actors on a Zoom call but, via OBS control, only the people currently acting were projected on YouTube for audiences to see.
The international ensemble we gathered showed how open-access software and streaming platforms could help students at our rural university transcend our limited geography.
Using OBS overlaid with Zoom technology this way, Hageland could also talk to the actors on the Zoom call without streaming his voice to the YouTube channel, keeping the audience from hearing. This layer of technology essentially allowed Hageland to stage mange the virtual event. The combination of technology and talent worked surprisingly well, and we leaned into ways to create spectacle in this streaming environment. For instance, in a play called Left On Read by undergraduate Payton Heinold, actors seemed to pass a letter from one Zoom box to another. This type of investigation would later serve us during the 2021 new play festival.
At the same time that we were experimenting with evenings of shorts, the graduate students were developing full-length plays that would ultimately comprise the 2021 Big Muddy New Play Festival. At first, we conducted these developmental readings live, via Zoom, as we would with face-to-face actors in class. However, we quickly discovered that technological glitches—if an actor’s Wi-Fi dropped, for instance—could bring a performance to a screeching halt and disrupt any sense of dramatic continuity. For this reason, we decided we would record the full-length plays for the festival and present them as YouTube premieres. More importantly, via the short play evenings and the full-length workshops, we discovered the strengths of streaming.
Winter 2021: Finding the Strengths of Online New Play Development
Early in fall 2020, when I had realized our 2021 new play festival would have to be virtual, I told the playwrights: “We understand the obvious downsides to doing a theatre festival online. We also need to figure out and lean into the strengths of online theatre.”
What we came to realize by winter was obvious in retrospect: since our method of production was essentially a manipulated Zoom that we streamed on YouTube, geography was no object. This latitude meant that for the 2021 Big Muddy New Play Festival, we could collaborate with anyone, far beyond the bounds of rural Carbondale, Illinois.
Initially, our recruited directors were stationed in Chicago, Atlanta, and Abington, Virginia. This geographic expansion allowed us to collaborate with artists who were ensemble members at venues such as Chicago’s Stage Left Theatre and Abington’s Barter Theatre. Similar to our new ability to utilize directors outside Carbondale, our casting pool opened significantly, which helped all five of the festival’s performances. The Chicago-based actor and director Stephanie Stroud was able to cast two actors who lived together to be in one of the festival’s thesis productions, Small Box with a Revolver by Hageland. Casting two actors who could safely be in the same room made that production much like a film of an in-person production.
The other thesis script, Savage Daughter by MFA playwright McCall Logan and directed by Bobbi Masters, called for a non-binary Native American actor—a specificity we could not readily find in Carbondale. However, with location no longer an object, Masters was able to cast this part appropriately.
As the planning phase continued, the other festival productions also began to benefit from regionally specific expertise. One MFA playwright, Lavinia Roberts, wrote a script about a young Jane Austen, and Roberts wanted a British cast, if possible, in order to understand whether her script’s “Britishisms” felt natural to UK actors. With the help of Professor Kasia Lech at Canterbury Christ Church University and Professor Ioana Szeman at Roehampton University, London, we were able to collaborate with UK-based acting students, as well as the US-based actors cast by the performance’s director Kelley Jordan. Similarly, MFA playwriting student Pearl Moore was able to connect with Tricia Matthews of the Barter Theatre who cast actors from the Appalachian region of Moore’s play as well as age-appropriate actors for some of the play’s older parts—something that is typically difficult in the SIU context. Finally, PhD student Angela Duggins was able to utilize cast members familiar with her play’s Ozark context.
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.
Besides casting, by the time we were recording the performances for the festival, we also had a better understanding of the aesthetics of online performances. For instance, Savage Daughter was a multi-location, expressionist script, and we were able to utilize some special effects to at least convey the idea of a production, such as fire engulfing one of the characters.
Likewise, the simple change from “heads in boxes” to “heads in circles” in Duggins’s staged reading of her script Persimmons and Peach Trees led to an interesting aesthetic difference. Since so much of filming “staged readings” to present on YouTube was about trying to create an experience that did not feel like watching a Zoom call, the change of shape from squares to circles was remarkably effective. It made the design feel more like a choice than a template. Likewise, Duggins’s decision to include a graphic of a tree alongside text detailing the act and scene the audience was watching helped create a particular aesthetic for her play’s reading.
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.