Pitt Stages ‘kills’ with first production in months


Screenshot via Pitt Stages

Pitt Stages held a web performance of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” Sunday night, in its first production since Pitt shifted to online classes.

By Maggie Young, Contributing Editor

Jokes about auditorium seating flooded the comments section of the YouTube livestream Sunday night, including one from the user Barry Joseph that resembled something an audience member would say in an actual theater.

“Can the gentleman in front of me please kindly remove his view-obstructing hat?” the comment read, obviously in jest, as this user is likely one of millions who haven’t been to a live theater performance in months.

About 500 people attended a web performance of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” put on by Pitt Stages, its first production since Pitt shifted to online classes in March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Those involved were happy with the production, but the cast and crew lamented how much they missed performing in person.

Playwright Qui Nguyen, who originally wrote the script in 2011, modified it for an online performance in light of the pandemic. Both versions follow Agnes (Julia Kreutzer), a high school student grieving the death of her younger sister Tilly (Ariana Starkman).

After stumbling upon Tilly’s notebook that details her adventures in Dungeons and Dragons, Agnes starts to play with Tilly’s old dungeon master, Chuck (Dennis Sen). Chuck portrays Tilly and the other characters written in the quest, which helps Agnes grieve by learning more about her sister.

Unlike other virtual plays to hit the market recently, all rehearsals and other collaboration for this performance took place online. Scenes were filmed with Skype as actors engaged with one another, each standing in front of a green screen. Cast members such as Starkman said these interactions were markedly different from a live performance.

“You’re not acting into someone’s eyes,” Starkman, who graduated from Pitt this spring, said. “You’re not even in a room with people. So that’s a whole new level of imagination and connection and commitment to action, commitment to storytelling.”

Similar hurdles worried Kelly Trumbull, the show’s co-director and a visiting assistant professor in the theater arts department. Trumbull said while she thought the cast and crew adapted well, Trumbull and her fellow co-director Ricardo Vila-Roger were nervous about cast members connecting.

“I do think that there is something lost, obviously, when you’re not face to face with people in real life,” Trumbull said. “But I do think the camaraderie that we found, the collaborative spirit we found in the virtual room was very, very similar to that of an actual rehearsal room.”

Just as the performance format shifted online, so did the setting of Nguyen’s script. Instead of meeting at school or similar settings, as in the original version, the new script featured characters talking to each other on video chat platforms like Zoom, where individual windows would open and close as their character entered or exited a scene.

But Vila-Roger said this limited the fantastic nature of the Dungeons and Dragon game Agnes and Chuck play, especially in terms of the fight sequences.

“The original has a lot of fight sequences that we obviously can’t do online because we don’t have actors in the same space,” Vila-Roger said. “There’s more narration to discuss those fights rather than filming the fights.”

While action sequences had to be scaled down, scenic designers Kami Beckford and Jess Fitzpatrick said they had to work in finer detail. Skype recordings were placed over illustrated backgrounds of each character’s bedroom, allowing Beckford and Fitzpatrick to use new mediums for set design, such as Adobe Illustrator.

“In the theater, you have a 20-foot-back rule,” Beckford, a rising senior architecture studies major, said. “Now people can look really up close and look for textures and other stuff.”

Many involved in the show, including Beckford and Fitzpatrick, had been part of a Pitt Stages production of “She Kills Monsters” before. This is the third time Pitt Stages has put on the show, once in 2018 and again in 2019. Sen played Chuck in both performances, and Starkman played Tilly in 2018.

Trumbull said she and Vila-Roger were excited for a third production, after being prompted by Annmarie Duggan, the theater arts department chair, to direct a performance on Nguyen’s new script, especially since most summer plans were cancelled.

“A lot of [students] had been planning to work in summer stock, things of that nature, and obviously their seasons were cancelled,” Trumbull said. “This gave us all something to work on and collaborate on during these strange times.”

But virtual collaboration was not without its struggles. Many members of the cast and crew said there were times when rehearsals were slowed down by slow internet connection.

Sen, who graduated this spring, said his internet connection kept cutting out during one of the final days of filming, forcing the cast to film certain scenes several times.

“It’s another middleman,” Sen said. “There’s so much red tape you have to go through creating a virtual show. It makes the outcome so much more rewarding, but it’s so difficult.”

The cast and crew of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” all expressed excitement about the production, though many, including Starkman, emphasized how much they missed performing in person.

“I think we found an incredible addition, but not a replacement,” Starkman said. “It’s not a replacement for being in the same room together, telling the same story, feeling each other’s breath and looking into each other’s eyes.”