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Theater Emory goes viral and virtual with original, student-written ‘Viral Plays’

Student playwrights created 10-minute virtual plays with the help of award-winning alumna Lauren Gunderson. All productions, including “It’s a Dream to Die For,” can be viewed on the Theater Emory website through March 26. Photo: Milton Cordero.

Theater Emory and the Department of Theater and Dance present “Viral Plays,” 10 student-written, 10-minute works created for a virtual environment and streaming now through March 26 on the Theater Emory website.

Created by the Department of Theater and Dance, the Viral Plays project launched in the fall of 2020 with a new play development workshop led by Emory alumna and award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson 04C. This spring, the plays went into a full production process at Theater Emory with theater students directing, designing and acting in all of the plays.

“Our goal was to have students in leadership roles whenever possible,” says Lisa Paulsen, chair of the Theater Studies Program. “And then the department, Theater Emory staff and some wonderful alumni who have joined the project, worked together to collaborate with and support the students.”

Gunderson sees Viral Plays as an extension of the educational work she has done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the lockdown hit us last year, I pivoted my scattered emotions and anxiety to teaching free online class for anyone who has Wi-Fi,” she says. “Those classes have been viewed tens of thousands of times already and gave me instant community, purpose and the clear confidence that a pandemic cannot stop theater.” 

“That same instinct led me to accept invitations I usually don't have the travel time to accept,” Gunderson adds. “Our world was tested, but it also shrank. Such was the case with the Emory program. I got to work with students I normally wouldn't, and I'm so grateful for their exciting work and unstoppable vision for theater.” 

For playwriting students, working with a theater heavyweight like Gunderson, who was America’s most produced living playwright in both 2017 and 2019, is an invaluable educational experience.

“On its own, the opportunity to work with Lauren Gunderson was staggering to me,” says Noah Gentry 23C, a playwriting and business administration major from Birmingham, Alabama, and playwright of “The Other Anne Hathaway.” “I feel like I advanced so much as a writer in a relatively short period of time, just from the six or so sessions we had with her.”

For her part, Gunderson believes the student playwrights have produced remarkable work under incredibly challenging circumstances. 

“I found the students diverse, adept, curious, adventurous and very talented,” she says. “It's a lot to ask someone to write a play for a virtual setting, much less with time pressure and full plates with their other academic work. But what they produced is singular and thrilling.” 

The virtual environment allowed students to continue their artistic development despite geographical distance and the inability to mount traditional theater productions.

“Working on Viral Plays was a long and rewarding process,” says creative writing and English major Talyn Fan 20OX 22C, who, from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote “Just Act Normal” and acted in “It’s a Dream to Die For.”

“I’ve been taking classes remotely over the last year, so working on Viral Plays helped me stay connected with the Emory theater community,” Fan says. 

For Theater Emory and theater studies, Viral Plays exemplifies a long-held dedication to the development of new work and engaging students in professional theater production. 

“Our vision was that over the course of this full-year project, the whole of Theater at Emory would be represented and engaged by this project,” says Paulsen. “And I’m proud that vision has been achieved, and eager for audiences to experience what has been created in this disorienting year.”

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