Students reimagine theatre, debut ‘How to Survive a Pandemic’


Photo courtesy Shira Weiss.

Grace Comer, news staff

The magic of the theatre is in the audience engagement and intimacy of the show – a key feature that separates it from film – and that is now missing from digital performances. Northeastern University third-year students Kaitlyn Fiery and Shira Weiss are using new technology to try and recreate that interaction digitally in their new play, “How to Survive a Pandemic.” 

Following the closure of Northeastern in March 2020, Fiery, a theatre major, found herself grappling with questions of how to respond to the challenges of the pandemic – as did students around the world. 

“All of their experiences, woven together, were what we wanted to explore,” Fiery said, describing her inspiration for the project. 

“How to Survive a Pandemic” hopes to tie together the major themes and crises of 2020 into a story of resiliency. 

“Between the pandemic, the wildfires, the impeachment, the murder hornets, the election and white people’s newfound attention to the very-much-not-new issues of racism and police brutality, 2020 was a lot,” said Weiss, a theatre major. 

While the topics may be heavy, Weiss explained the themes are not all negative.

“The crux of the show became showing struggles, but also how we get through the struggles,” Weiss said.  

Through a series of one-on-one interviews and story circles with the Northeastern community, Weiss and Fiery discussed a broad range of topics, from “What would you put on your quarantine playlist?” to more serious questions about mental health and national unrest. 

“Reading through these hours and hours of people’s stories, themes started to emerge. So many people are talking about hope and fear,” Weiss said. 

One of the challenges of the play is that Fiery and Weiss, as students, are very close to the subject matter. 

“It felt like we were in the thick of it in a way that many artists we studied haven’t been,” Fiery said. 

However, their familiarity allowed them to contribute their own emotions, and interviewing students helped to give the play a broader scope and explore a more global student experience. 

In fact, the interviews helped to create not only the main themes, but also the show’s main plot. 

“It feels like we’re in a game, and there’s some player somewhere just having fun messing with us while we try to play the game,” Fiery said, recalling a student’s quote they used as inspiration. 

The play is centered around actors trapped in famous video games, addressing our newfound relationship with and dependence on technology. As the play progresses, the actors “win” their games and earn virtual points by reflecting on and facing their struggles. 

Fiery and Weiss were recipients of the Northeastern Project-Based Exploration for the Advancement of Knowledge, or PEAK, award for their project. Their staff mentor for this project is Northeastern CAMD professor Melinda Lopez, an award-winning playwright. 

“To have an amazing playwright say, ‘You have touched on something that is really important,’ really helped us have the courage to get this done,” Fiery said about working with Lopez.

Once they finished writing the play, there was a whole new set of challenges. 

“It is so exhausting to try to sit through theatre on Zoom, it’s not the art that we love or the craft that we’ve studied,” Fiery said. 

Attempting to avoid the Zoom fatigue that has become all too common nowadays, Weiss and Fiery worked with a student production team to create an innovative and interactive experience. Instead of having each actor in their own Zoom box, the team has worked to utilize the medium in a way that makes it feel more like a live play. 

“In the program Open Broadcaster Software, we can pull video directly and add it to a screen,” said third-year Northeastern student Emma Nafz, a theatre major and the streaming producer for the show. 

Performed live on Zoom, all the action will take place on a single screen with actors live streamed onto that screen. Alongside the actors, there will also be classic video-game style animations. 

“We are asking audience members to utilize the chat to interact with the actors,” Fiery said. The audience participation helps the actors to “beat” the levels of the game by introducing new ideas on themes of normalcy and recovery, while the actors have a chance to improvise and react to the chat. 

Similar to onstage acting, sound effects are utilized to create a realistic and immersive experience. This is especially important when drawing inspiration from well-known classic video games. 

“I pulled from video game soundtracks, sample libraries and even from a couple live play streams,” said first-year Wynn Graves, a theatre and interaction design combined major and the sound designer and board operator for the show.  

With so many technological elements to incorporate, the crew is working full time with 3-hour tech rehearsals this week and additional free time spent on perfecting the animation, sounds, cues and mics. The production team compiled all of this information into QLab, a program for organizing the various technological inputs of a performance. 

Other dilemmas arose from the fully-virtual aspects of the performance as rehearsals continued.

“Costuming is super weird, because they can’t make anything and have to work with what’s already in actors’ closets,” Graves said. Costuming is especially difficult because each actor plays several roles, and needs multiple costumes from a single closet. 

Despite the challenges, creating this play has been a positive experience not only for Fiery and Weiss, but also for the Northeastern community. 

“One of my favorite parts was having connections with people at times where connections are hard to come across,” Weiss said of the story circles. 

“How to Survive a Pandemic” brings together common themes in the universal experience with the COVID-19 pandemic to present a message of strength and resilience for students of all groups.

“The beauty of this play is that it explores the student perspective from many angles, identities and personalities,” Fiery said. 

“How to Survive a Pandemic” runs from Feb. 12-14, with 8 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday and a 2 p.m. show Sunday. Free registration for the show is available here.