Stage Whisperer

Acclaimed Theater Designer Takes Lead Role in Reimagining Live Performance
By Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by John T. Consoli

Even as many stages remain dark, adventurous new forms of theater are emerging from the pandemic—and Jared Mezzocchi is at the center of it.

The associate professor of multimedia design for dance and theater has helmed 20 virtual productions since COVID-19 struck, including the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ groundbreaking online version of Qui Nguyen’s fantasy “She Kills Monsters” and Diversionary Theatre’s take on the musical “Cancelled,” about a high school’s online scandal.

The New York Times recently named Mezzocchi one of five people or entities agitating contemporary theater, and his digital work “Russian Troll Farm,” featuring memes, animation and virtual backgrounds, was honored as a Times Critic’s Pick. He talked with Terp about the thrilling state of theater—and how TikTok musicals might represent one new frontier.

How do you approach all-virtual productions?

My philosophy has been to do as much as possible live. Even if it’s a little messier, our craft as theater-makers is about being live in front of an audience. For “She Kills Monsters,” we rehearsed start to finish; the actors knew what filters to turn on and off, when to turn on and off their cameras. Everything the audience witnessed that night was live. Everyone was very emotional that we achieved that.

What makes a virtual production successful?

Right now, (success) means being fearless, taking risks. I’d love to see monumental falling on one’s face because even then, at least we’re trying to do something live (rather) than not try at all. Working through something is really exhilarating to me; when you commit to risk-taking, unexpected outcomes occur. That has deep impact for an audience member.

How would you describe this period of reshaping performing arts?

Accessibility is a huge part of it. By being online, “She Kills Monsters” had 5,000 viewers in one night from multiple countries. The families of our international students were able to see their performance live for the first time. We’re only scratching at the top of that surface.

How does the lack of live audience affect performance?

What makes live performance so evocative is the give and take of energy between viewer and maker. That’s just not as present (with digital performances) in the way that we were used to, but engagement can still occur—just differently. I think about TikTok’s viral “Ratatouille” musical—that is an audience and a maker exchanging energy in a really exciting way. That’s engagement with the younger generation that theater needs.

What about the future of theater most excites you?

Theater-making always forces new ways of looking at what we’re doing. I’m excited to not just depend on physical stages, but think outside the box of how and where theater can exist.


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