Courtesy of Sarah Valeika

Four actors stare straight at the audience from the makeshift sets of their bedrooms. Last weekend, Yale College Arts presented “Marjorie Prime,” a virtual production that turned its online format into an opportunity for creativity.   

“Marjorie Prime,” directed by Sarah Valeika ’22 and produced by Eliza MacGilvray ’22, is a play that touches on themes of control and grief — pertinent topics during a global pandemic. Valeika leaned into the present significance of these themes when bringing the play to life. The show tells the story of an 85-year-old Marjorie who “drifts through her final years alongside her beloved husband Walter … or rather, an artificially intelligent version of the deceased, Walter Prime,” according to the show’s Yale College Arts page, and illuminates the way in which Marjorie interacts with memories and reality.

“This is a production about artificial intelligence, connection, and the ways in which we try to use technology … and I felt like all of those questions are so relevant right now,” Valeika said. 

Valeika came up with the project proposal for “Marjorie Prime” over the summer as an independent project for her internship with the Cape Cod Theatre Project. As the fall semester approached with restrictions on in-person gatherings, Valeika looked for new ways to engage with theater. She realized that her production of “Marjorie Prime” would be a good fit for a virtual medium.

“I wondered what I could do to produce work that would be meaningful — that would actually utilize a digital format rather than trying to shy away from it,” Valeika said.

Valeika secured funding through a Creative and Performing Arts Award — a grant that supports on-campus artistic production in residential colleges — and worked with Kerry Cripe, senior technical director of Yale Undergraduate Production, to obtain streaming rights for the play. Valeika then conducted auditions virtually.

During rehearsals, the inability of cast members to physically interact with one another presented a challenge. Ellie Burke ’24, the show’s costume designer and technical supervisor, noted that it was difficult for actors to get into the right “headspace” over Zoom. To combat this, actors disabled the self-view feature so that they wouldn’t see themselves acting. Valeika also encouraged actors to harness their anger and feelings of isolation induced by the pandemic and use this to emote and connect with their characters.

But according to Samantha White ’21, who played Marjorie, there is another way to find intimacy in Zoom theater: the audience could now see actors’ expressions magnified on screen, which is not possible on physical stages in-person.

“It allows you to be seen more closely,” White said. “There’s less ways to hide.”

Audience member Arnold Setiadi ’22 also cued into the intimacy of Zoom. Setiadi said that “it’s just the actor on the screen, staring at the camera, talking to you moment to moment. You see everything.”

During rehearsals, which often occurred at night, Valeika checked in with cast members and crew to mitigate Zoom fatigue. She said she understood the difficulty of acting before a screen — a two-dimensional object — and encouraged members to engage on a multi-sensory basis, clueing in to different senses in different ways. For example, sometimes actors would simply turn their cameras off and listen to music during warm-up sessions.

Just like with in-person rehearsals, the Zoom hours spent on the project created a strong sense of community, according to assistant stage manager William An ’24, who said the closeness of cast members eliminated a “sense of [physical] distance.”

MacGilvray, the show’s producer, agreed, saying that the production showed her that “it’s still possible to make theater together.”

The show was performed live over a Zoom webinar, allowing actors to virtually perform in the presence of an audience. During the performance, both attendees and actors tried to replicate the ambiance of in-person theater. Setiadi said he dimmed his room lights and set the webinar on full screen. White, whose bedroom was her performance space, tried to make the space “feel as much like a theater as possible.”

The webinar format also increased the performance’s accessibility. While attendance at in-person shows is constrained by the size of each venue, Zoom’s unlimited capacity allowed for any number of people to join. Burke said the online platform makes the production process “a lot more democratic.” 

“I wanted [audience members] to remember to treasure the moments of connection that we do have with each other, in whatever form they take,” Valeika said. “We can’t always connect with people in a way we want to —  sometimes you have to accept a relationship for its beauties, even if you still want to change it.”

“Marjorie Prime” had four shows from Nov. 5 to Nov. 7.

Dominique Castanheira | dominique.castanheira@yale.edu