by Luke Watson ‘24 (he/him/his), Staff Writer

Davidson College Theatre puts on a ghostly pandemic performance across campus. Photo by Chris Record

The plague has arrived. There is nowhere left to run. “Remain calm,” the voice on the radio urges. You must scramble to the safe haven of Chambers to hunker down and make it out alive.

If that imagery brought to mind the classic zombie flick set-up, you’re on the right track. Alternatively, if you imagined COVID-19’s spread, you’re also not far off. With Ubi Orta Pestilentia, Davidson’s theater department has crafted a marriage of zombie horror and pandemic reality in a case of art imitating life.

Ubi Orta adopted a familiar premise, but during a global pandemic, the cast and crew had to tackle theater in a vastly different way. The production used several locations across campus as a set, beginning at the field hockey stadium. After a brief introduction there, audiences were asked to hop in their vehicles and follow the show’s protagonist, the “runner,” around campus while listening on the radio. Those without a vehicle could watch from the runner’s point of view via livestream. Aside from an abnormal outdoor rehearsal process, the play had many other deviations from the norm: no formal script, multiple directors of separate vignettes, and a rotating cast and crew. It’s what creator (and opening scene director) Professor Steve Kaliski refers to as “devised” theater.

“We’re not working from a script; we’re creating something completely from scratch,” he said. “There’s no published material.”

However, the production was not developed totally on-the-fly: an experimental campus-wide project, Exit 30: A Pandemic Theatre Detour, during the summer preceded it to test the waters of making art during COVID-19. Unlike Ubi Orta, that production allowed audiences to interact slightly more. Kaliski said that integrating the audience adequately was about half the battle for Ubi Orta and that the test run alleviated anxiety. Clare Harbin ‘23, one of the show’s “runners,” participated in the summer production and observed that she “knew what distanced theater was like, and [she] had gotten used to it” thanks to prior experience.

Ubi Orta was an intriguing experience. With multiple directors’ visions in play, tone and content varied from scene to scene. From a humorous segment involving pre-med students to a bizarre and unsettling zombie wedding dance, the show pushed the genre to its limits. Despite the shifts, the show found strength in the variety of ideas presented. Kaliski said these shifts away from “community and ensemble,” where members of the cast could never even meet, were contradictory to his style, but he enjoyed the wildly different ideas. He integrated some pieces of continuity for each station’s artist, such as “a piece of Davidson history or lore,” and provided a list of events he imagined happening during the show for “scaffolding.”

“I don’t think that total cohesion was ever really the goal,” he said. “This was kind of a celebration of individual art installations existing under one broad umbrella of zombie horror.”

If anything about Ubi Orta’s tone was cohesive, it was the creepy edge provided by the protagonist’s point of view. The play took on a thrilling “found footage” film tone via stream, but never ceased to feel like a piece of live theater. 

Harbin said that adapting to this format as an actor was a challenge. However, she added that being in the same shoes as the audience made acting easier in some respects and more fun thanks to the genuine confusion of abundant zombies and the physical sprinting it involved. She also said having the distancing occur naturally with the blocking avoided things feeling “out of place or wacky.”

Despite difficulties presented by the pandemic, Kaliski and Harbin both reflected positively on the experience as they considered future artistic endeavors.

“Could you do a theater event on campus that everybody is aware is happening, and everybody somehow participates in it or takes partial ownership of it as it unfolds?” Kaliski asked. “If I were to do it again in this format, I might further explore that potential.”

“COVID-19 has really shaken the way theater can be performed, produced, and shared in a really positive way,” Harbin said. “It’s not just about the production design, the costumes, and the stage. It can be all over campus, and it can be right in people’s faces. It’s giving exposure to theater to lots of different people, […] and it just makes it a lot more accessible and evocative. It’s expanded my mind on what theater is and how it can be shared.”

Ubi Orta Pestilentia was a unique experience that pushed the medium’s boundaries in an engaging, fascinating way. Those who haven’t experienced theater’s new normal and want a classic bit of zombie fun can still watch one of the showings on the theater department’s Facebook!

Luke Watson ‘24 (he/him/his) is an Economics major from Gatlinburg, TN. He can be reached for comment at luwatson@davidson.edu