Art Imitating Life: UM Theatre and Film Department to Produce Play Using Masks, Webcams, and Green Screens.

A set of Larval masks. Photo by Strangeface Masks.

OXFORD, Ms. – The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping the UM Theatre and Film Department from performing shows in front of live audiences this semester, but that is not stopping the department from producing and staging plays virtually. COVID may have closed the curtains on the department’s productions last semester, but this fall… the show must go on(line).

One of the virtual shows currently in production is “Near/Far,” a play that will be recorded live and then released on the department’s website to watch for free on Nov. 6. “Near/Far” will explore themes of isolation, loneliness, loss, and grief, as well as themes of inspiration, connection, and hope. These pandemic-related themes are seen through the lens of The Larval Mask, a large and abstract mask inspired by the carnival masks of Basel in Switzerland.

In “Near/Far”, student actors will use their Larval masks to create creatures who are simple and curious in nature.

“So we were brainstorming about ways we could safely continue to make theater specifically, and I made the suggestion to do a particular kind of mask work and create a play based on the experience of living through the time of a global pandemic and quarantine,” said Lauren Bone Noble, director of “Near/Far” and associate professor of movement for the actor.

Zoom will play an integral role in “Near/Far”. According to Noble, the play’s cast is using the video conferencing platform for rehearsals, and when it’s show time, students will record their performances from home using Zoom. Along with their masks and costumes, members of the cast will also receive a webcam, green screen and lights; they will also be given guidance on how to properly setup those items in their home.

“We wanted to be able… to keep going forward despite what the situation on campus or in our community might be,” Noble said. “We didn’t want to have to stop because of any sort of further quarantining.”

However, Noble says there are disadvantages to rehearsing and performing virtually.

“Well, there is no replacement for the shared energy of people gathered in one place, you cannot replace that in a rehearsal hall, and you cannot replace that in a performance,” Noble said. “It’s a terrible loss.”

Cody Stockstill, Assistant Professor of Scenic Design, says he and his two scenic design students, who are the primary designers of the show, worked with Noble over the summer to create the scenic design of “Near/Far”, which will feature a virtual Zoom-like environment of individual squares. According to Noble, the play’s left behind world was initially inspired by images of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Stockstill says his student designers are still finding the best way to create the show’s virtual environment using Zoom and green screen technology.

“What we are doing is we are testing out right now how accurate it is (the green screen virtual backgrounds) via Zoom, and we are finding out that it’s extremely accurate believe it or not with Zoom’s algorithm for their backgrounds,” Stockstill said.

While his student designers create and render three-dimensional models and animations for the show’s virtual environments, Stockstill says he is currently learning more about Zoom’s virtual background technology and troubleshooting for possible technical problems that could happen during the show’s live performance.

Even though the live performance will be edited before it releases, Stockstill says he and his student designers will limit the amount of editing they do because they want the play to feel like a live theatre performance, not a film.

“We are trying to keep that spirit of live theatre alive in the recording process; what we are really trying to do with this is not even add the green screen effects, we are going to record the green screen effects live,” Stockstill said.

The mask work that Noble is incorporating into the play was first popularized by French stage actor and coach Jacques Lecoq, who was best known for his teaching methods, which involved an emphasis on masks, specifically Larval masks used to amplify the actor’s gestures and movement. Noble says her training in Larval Masks and Lecoq-based movement styles comes from her time spent studying with Giovanni Fusetti and other Lecoq proteges.

“He created this style of mask work where the masks are kind of like characters, we have specific characters, and the person who is wearing that mask will sort of have to create with their body a character around that mask,” Noble said. “So then, we will be telling the story as if these creatures have wandered into a never-ending Zoom meeting.”

While virtual performances create new opportunities for technological innovation, it also creates challenges for performing arts students who are not getting the experience of performing in front of a live audience.

“I think it negatively impacts us by not having those live productions because a lot of people in the program have not gotten to experience their first Ole Miss theatre show,” said Jaslyn Nicole Ballansaw, a senior fine arts major and member of the “Near/Far” cast. “So, it’s just a missed opportunity, but I’m glad the department is coming up with other ways to give those opportunities back to us.”

Even though COVID-19 has taken away the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience, theatres across the countryhave found new ways to tell stories through virtual mediums.

“They don’t want to lose touch with their audience, they want to continue telling the important stories that we tell in this industry,” said Michael Barnett, department chair and professor of lighting design. “We think it’s vital that our students have an opportunity to work within those same mediums.”

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