My Experience of Moving from Live Theatre to the Virtual Stage

Written by Eoin Finnegan

A long time ago – September 2019 to be precise – a rather startled-looking first year student by the name of Eoin Finnegan shuffled awkwardly into a room in the DCU science building. He had the intention of auditioning for the drama society’s annual panto, “The Dancing Dead”, specifically for the role of a depressed poet who talks about death a lot. Young, naïve Eoin didn’t expect the audition to go anywhere, mostly due to his… limited singing and dancing abilities although he figured that it was worth a try anyway. What unfolded over the following two months as a direct result of that audition would prove to be the unquestioned highlight of young Eoin’s first year of college. It was a journey filled with laughs, tears, cheesy musical numbers, ridiculous costumes, new friends and memories that he already knew he would carry with him for the rest of his life. As the curtain closed on that fateful final night of the panto, Eoin said to himself ‘this is pretty great, I should do more shows with this society!’

Alas, tragedy soon struck, as tragedy seems to have an annoying tendency of doing. This particular tragedy took on the form of a virus which caused educational institutions across the world to shut their doors to their own students. Overcome with self-pity, Eoin assumed it would be a long time before he would be in another show. But just when all hope seemed lost, a new opportunity presented itself…

Returning to drama for my second year as a member of the society, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sceptical about what would be coming up in the year ahead. After all, no one could meet in person meaning that the chances of getting three shows on stage by December were very slim. I was even more sceptical when I discovered that the shows were going to be completely rehearsed and performed over Zoom. After all, how could you stage a show without meeting in person? How could a show be performed without a live audience? And most importantly, how could cast bonding take place without the help of the Ivy House? I decided to give it a try anyway, mostly out of a mixture of curiosity and lockdown-induced boredom.

I decided to audition for the panto again, but the idea of my family being able to hear me singing and dancing every day for the next two months proved to be too horrifying for me. Instead, I auditioned for the contemporary play, “Start Swimming“. Looking back, it’s safe to say that auditioning was the hardest bit of the production. When auditioning in person, you can usually get a sense of how much the production team are enjoying your performance. Auditioning online, I didn’t have the faintest idea if they liked what I was doing or if they could even hear me properly with my dodgy headphone mic. It didn’t help my case that I also didn’t understand the lines I was reading but clearly, something went right because before I knew it, I was part of the cast.

We soon got into online rehearsals, rehearsing for four or even five hours straight. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration. We usually rehearsed for about one hour before spending the rest of the evening chatting or playing online games together. Surprisingly enough, cast bonding actually happened even though I’ve yet to meet several of my co-stars in person. Just goes to show that an Ivy night isn’t the only way to get to know your co-stars (but it’s still the best way). It helped that there were only eight of us in the cast, plus three in the production team which allowed us to get to know each other well. We always had a laugh together at our ‘swim team’ meetings, whether we were trying to name all fifty U.S states, playing an intense round of Among Us or pitching a TV show about a mystery-solving ostrich. Cast bonding gave me something fun to look forward to in the dark winter evenings after yet another monotonous day of online college (ew).

“Start Swimming” is easily the most relaxed show I’ve ever worked on. A lot of that comes from it being the only show that I’ve starred in without leaving my bedroom but a ton of credit also has to be dumped on our production team: Clara with her enthusiasm and clear vision for the show; Josh with his exceptional organisation and PR material; and Ethan with his mad editing skills. They took every limitation that lockdown and Zoom threw at them as a challenge and made the whole thing look easy. “Start Swimming” is a very weird show, which gave the team a lot of creative freedom to try and do something unusual with it, which worked to our advantage since we were using a type of theatre that hadn’t been used much before.

Granted, not everything was smooth sailing, with poor internet, background noise and the varying quality of our cameras and microphones proving to be obstacles. But overall, the finished product was something we were all incredibly proud of and the reactions we received from the audience confirmed how successful our little project was. Sure, a few comments under a YouTube video isn’t the same as the sound of thunderous applause echoing throughout the St Pat’s auditorium or the U but it’s proof that the arts can survive and thrive in these difficult times.

Could online productions completely replace the live theatre experience? No, but do they make a good substitute while live theatre isn’t a possibility? Absolutely! It was a very different experience to “The Dancing Dead” in my first year but it still gave me the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Making an online production has easily been the best thing I’ve done during the lockdown; and with auditions taking place for the next wave of DCU Drama online shows this week, I can’t recommend taking part in them enough. I especially encourage new members or people who have been a bit sceptical about online productions to give it a try; not only will you have the chance to work on a meaningful group project but you’ll also have the chance to make new friends and bond over a shared experience. I don’t know if I’ll be gracing the cast list of any of the new shows, but I do know that I can’t wait to see what the talented folks at DCU Drama come up with next.

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