New rules, new sets: Riverside produces a virtual show within a green screen world

Riverside Theatre will present a production unlike any of their previous plays this weekend. Sonnets for a New Century is set in a virtually rendered afterlife.


Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

Riverside’s newest virtual play, Sonnets for an Old Century, was filmed using a green screen to make an ambitious set design a reality. After seeing the sci-fi-esque final product, one may be surprised to learn that the set began as a miniature model made from fake jewels from Michael’s Crafts and sticks from Kentucky.

The play was adapted from a book of monologues of the same name by author José Rivera. While the book has no official setting, each monologue is from a person in an unfamiliar afterlife.

Scenic designer S. Benjamin Farrar said he had envisioned working on a show with a unique digital setting for a while now. Taking stylistic inspiration from Jim Henson and the claymation techniques of Fantastic Mr. Fox, he got to work on the otherworldly model while on a trip to visit his parents in Kentucky.

He also drew inspiration from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, when Dante is walking through a forest before reaching the underworld.

“I always found that forest to be really weird, because it’s not a forest that’s truly on Earth, it’s this liminal space between Earth and the afterlife,” he said. “It’s not like you can just walk there, but somehow you can find yourself there.”

Farrar wanted the locations in the play to have organic and inorganic aspects to create an otherworldly atmosphere, so he used both kinds of materials in his to-scale model.

The model not only materialized his artistic vision, but also displayed the size of actors and props in relation to the world he created.

“I find something very magical about that,” Farrar said. “About playing with scale, and pretending things are bigger than they are, and playing with distance.”

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Assistant Director and actress Crystal Marie Stewart said she believes Farrar accomplished his goals for the set.

“I’ve been really stunned by how cool they made it look,” Stewart said. “We have a budget, but we don’t have like a Marvel or Disney budget.”

Stewart has worked with green screens in the past while taking theater classes at the University of Iowa, but her experience differed from an original world being brought to the screen.

For many aspects of the show, Stewart had to trust that everything would come together despite not being able to see the finished product.

“There were some actors who were struggling over Zoom, but lit up in person,” she said. “So many of them were just happy to be able to return to theater again.”

While there were areas of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, Stewart said she had no trouble diving into the world of Sonnets for a New Century.

“It wasn’t a hard headspace for me to get into only because I’m a huge nerd,” she said. “I think I was one of the first people to compare it to The Twilight Zone.”

Adam Knight, Riverside’s Producing Artistic Director, agreed that the show has a similar feel to the often dystopian, sci-fi TV series.

He said he felt thrilled to have the opportunity to play with scenic design in a way that they couldn’t for a live performance and that they explored the laws of physics and time using the green screen and a mix of practical and technical effects.

“It’s kind of rewriting the rules of what theater is,” Knight said. “That said, I hope that this production works the way a play works. Film often fills in all of the gaps of our imagination, whereas our intent with this play is to spark the imagination of the audience.”

Actor Christopher Okiishi said his imagination was sparked by the production.

“I had to imagine what it would be like to find yourself dead, and what you would ask about if there was someone there to ask questions to,” he said. “I also had to put myself in the headspace of someone who was fascinated with the complexities of our universal existence.”

He said he thinks that all audience members will find something that interests them in at least one monologue.

“When you’re doing monologues like this, it’s all over the map,” Okiishi said. “They’re about so many different things and give so many different perspectives.”

Sonnets for an Old Century will be streamable through Riverside’s website beginning April 16.