Lumen Scholar Sydney Dye ’21 innovates theatrical experience with original play ‘#silenced’

Written through news and social media accounts of UNC's Confederate monument controversy, '#silenced' premieres Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at

Even before the pandemic, Lumen Scholar Sydney Dye ’21 was pushing boundaries with her research.

Her aim was to write and produce a drama based on controversies around Confederate monuments, reflect social media’s role in our personal and national politics, and — crucially for the theatrical design and technology and communication design double-major — use onstage projections to advance those themes for audiences.

Sydney Dye '21
Sydney Dye ’21

But the finished result — the docudrama “#silenced” — breaks new ground in how plays can be performed and presented virtually by using theatrical design software and 3D animation. “#silenced” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Additional showings are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are free but pre-registration is required.

Pulling from news coverage, online posts and historical documents, Dye examined the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Protesters toppled the polarizing monument in 2018, 105 years after it was erected, but the controversy continues as the university and state determine how to display the monument going forward. Dye’s Lumen Prize-funded production involves heavy use of projected images and videos to contextualize the actors’ performances. She hopes “#silenced” will prompt audiences to weigh complex issues.

“At its core, the play is focused on how we engage with each other on social media and how we consume polarized content online. I want this play to serve as a reminder of what happens when conversations online get ugly,” Dye said. “It equally focuses on Confederate memorials in our society. Are they monuments to white supremacy, or are they monuments to people and a part of history? For audience members who don’t already have clear opinions about Confederate monuments, I think this play will be informative.”

The Lumen Prize is Elon’s premier award supporting undergraduate research. Each year, 15 rising juniors are named Lumen Scholars, earning a $20,000 scholarship and the opportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor to complete research that often produces conference presentations and publications. Dye was awarded the prize in spring 2019.

Associate Professor of Theatre Susanne Shawyer
Associate Professor of Theatre Susanne Shawyer

Dye was drawn to projection design in her first year at Elon. She was fascinated by the ways projected video and images enhance audience experiences and a performance’s message. She chose to pursue the Lumen Prize with Associate Professor of Theatre Susanne Shawyer as her mentor because she wanted to complete undergraduate research around theatrical design with substantial depth and breadth. She researched the genre of Epic Theatre, pioneered by German director Erwin Piscator in the 1930s to bring social and political issues into a theater’s physical space. She was interested particularly in how contemporary Epic Theatre could influence an audience toward political engagement or activism.

Dye initially thought she would use her research to adapt a previously written play to the Epic Theatre style. Her Lumen Prize proposal indicated she would write and produce three 10-minute scenes. Then renewed attention to “Silent Sam” caught her attention. A Chapel Hill native, Dye’s Facebook newsfeed filled with discussions, headlines and passionate reactions to the monument and its removal.

“I became interested in these comment threads on Facebook, how people were interpreting the monument, and what they thought should be done with it,” Dye said. “When I went in depth with ‘Silent Sam’, I realized there was full narrative arc” with the removal, the backroom deals between university leaders and neo-Confederate groups, and backlash.

With Shawyer’s guidance, Dye wrote the play using almost exclusively social media posts, comments, Tweets, and other digital records — like interviews, news clips, and historic newspapers — weaving history with current events.

“Sydney has been up to the challenge of the work required of Lumen Scholars,” Shawyer said. “We meet once a week, and she’s always on top of things. Even with the panic that came with the pandemic, Sydney has been so resilient. She blossomed into a leader, and gathered this huge team of faculty, staff, and student directors, designers and actors.”

The difficulty in mounting a play during COVID-19 led her to an innovative solution that could have implications across the theater world.

Capture is animation software often used by lighting designers to plan a stage show. It uses a 3D model of the stage and animated figures to assist in creating lighting queues. Assisted by Greg Thorn, technical director of Cultural and Special Programs, Dye animated the entire show and overdubbed the actors’ voices.

“We created 14 3D models of our actors that move on a 3D stage designed to replicate the Black Box Theatre,” Dye said. “We paired it with edited audio of the actors’ performances and integrated it with the projections and lighting design.”

Dye’s Lumen Prize funding paid for the Capture software, and through Thorn it will remain available for Elon’s theatrical use after her graduation this spring. Dye and Thorn will present their work at the Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention next month. The conference comprises 347 theaters, institutions, and organizations and nearly 4,500 individual members.

The Elon senior is a rising star in the theatrical design world. Her projection design for Elon Performing Arts’ “We Will Rock You” won first prize in the SETC’s competition last spring. She is also the first undergraduate to win the SETC’s John Spiegel Theatrical Artist Award, recognizing fresh talent in the field. In August, the entertainment design and technology institute USITT awarded Dye with its Pat MacKay Diversity in Design Scholarship, promoting equity and diversity in the theatrical design field. After graduation, she plans to complete an internship at The Muny in St. Louis.

Dye’s Lumen research won’t end when “#silenced” screens a final time Sunday. She will survey audience members and analyze their reactions to the play and its use of projections.

For more behind the scenes information about “#silenced”, visit its Instagram page, @silenced_production.