Live theater returns to Vanderbilt with new pandemic-themed plays

photograph of Neely Auditorium at night
Neely Auditorium (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt University Theatre will premiere two commissioned plays with themes inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic Oct. 1–3 at Neely Auditorium.

The two productions mark the first live theater performances on campus since the 2019–20 academic year due to the challenging circumstances of COVID-19.

Britney Approximately: A Pop Greek Tragedy Reflecting on the Pandemic and To Stab a Butterfly Through the Heart, or Vladimir Nabokov on a Westbound Train will be presented as a double bill Oct. 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 3 at 2 p.m.

“Last year was a very rough one for theater all over the world,” said Leah Lowe, associate professor of theatre. “When faculty and students began planning the new VUTheatre season last spring, there was still much uncertainty about what we would be able to do. We also just felt that living through last year was big enough that we wanted to stop and talk about it and reckon with what had happened.”

Lowe led a committee of faculty and students for the Plays from the Pandemic project. They decided the best approach would be to commission works with some type of connection to the pandemic from diverse and emerging professional playwrights. After an in-depth selection process, they commissioned works by Megan Tabaque, a Filipina-Canadian playwright, actor and arts educator who currently resides in Atlanta, and Ran Xia, a Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based playwright, director and sound artist.

Playwright Megan Tabaque

Tabaque, who is the 2021–23 Playwriting Fellow at Emory University, wrote Britney Approximately: A Pop Greek Tragedy Reflecting on the Pandemic. The plot revolves around a young woman named Britney who asks paparazzo Jason to free her from her TV host father Creon’s grasping clutches. Lowe said the play bears some resemblance to the Greek tragedy Medea but with a contemporary twist. It’s directed by Brooke Dennison, a Vanderbilt senior, as part of her honors project in theatre.

Playwright Ran Xia

Xia, resident director at the Tank, a New York nonprofit arts presenter and producer, wrote To Stab a Butterfly Through the Heart, or Vladimir Nabokov on a Westbound Train, in which a train passenger wrestles with questions about how to love a butterfly while her cat considers her from afar. “This play, which I’m directing, deals with issues about the pandemic tangentially,” Lowe said. “It’s about love and loss, fear and risk. It’s wrapped up with so many of the same emotions that we have been experiencing during the pandemic.”

Both playwrights will be on campus for the productions and extended conversations with theatre students.

“This is an exciting opportunity to support emerging and engaging theater artists nationally while bringing our students back into live performances,” said Phillip Franck, professor of theatre and department chair. “I know that our students are thrilled to be back at Neely after eight months of planning and preparation for opening night.”

Franck has designed the setting and lighting for each production. Other theatre faculty contributing to the productions include Alexandra Sargent Capps, assistant professor of the practice of theatre, as costume designer, and Liz Haynes, assistant professor of the practice of theatre, as technical director.

Two other productions from the Plays for the Pandemic project will be performed Nov. 12–14.

All patrons at Neely Auditorium will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. For the fall semester, VUTheatre productions are open only to the Vanderbilt campus community. Reservations are not required, and seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.