‘Hidden Stories’ documents the pandemic

The ‘digital theatrical experience’ was inspired by archived documentation of monumental moments in history. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Green lines of code light up the screen as music by D-Nice plays in the background. Suddenly, colored television bars interrupt and the video transitions to a recording of a dark room with a mannequin lit by a projector. The voice of Miki Turner can be heard as she describes how she expected the coronavirus pandemic to be another “HIV epidemic” or “SARS thing.”

Turner, assistant professor of professional practice at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, represents just one of the many members of the USC community affected by the coronavirus pandemic. She shared her personal story by documenting it through Collecting COVID-19, an initiative set up by the USC Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives during the spring 2020 semester. 

The initiative serves to document how members of the USC community, Los Angeles and the greater Southern California region have experienced the pandemic. In collaboration with USC Libraries, students from the School of Dramatic Arts looked into the archives and started a project of their own to present some experiences found in the collection, including that of Turner. This project, known as Hidden Stories, is meant to give anyone a glimpse of life during the pandemic through the lens of a “digital theatrical experience.”

Upon visiting the Hidden Stories website, visitors click the button “START HERE” to begin immersing themselves in the project. The first story, “Love or Survival,” follows an anonymous individual and his wife’s immigration and marriage status issues due to the pandemic. 

Voiced by Vicente Saintignon, a senior majoring in acting for the stage, screen and new media, “Love or Survival” begins by comparing the couple’s wedding to the wedding of the man’s grandparents, as both had occurred during difficult times. Animated portions of the video overlay photographs of the man’s family and spouse, capturing his emotions as he wonders if he will be able to remain with his wife in the United States. 

Each of the six stories selected is presented through a unique multimedia format, utilizing elements like stop motion animation, narration and sound design to reimagine theater in the current virtual world.

The original concept for Hidden Stories was proposed during the summer, but the team did not meet up until classes started last fall. As part of their “Theatre Practicum” class, the team devoted their time to creating the Hidden Stories project in place of planning a show. The student-led team consisted of 14 members collaborating with faculty mentors and theatre staff. 

These students served as concept creators, designers and managers overseeing the progress and were assigned to work in smaller teams on different stories. One member brought Hidden Stories online by managing social media and creating the website. 

During the production of “Love or Survival,” concept creator Maddy Engelsman, a junior majoring in design, kept close contact with the person who originally submitted the story to provide an appropriate presentation of his experience.

“I was in consistent communication with the submitter of that story just to ensure that, because they were going through an ongoing legal situation that I wasn’t overstepping any boundaries,” Engelsman said. 

After finishing the first story, the viewer engages with more links to access other stories like “The Corona Express,” submitted by USC student Sam Feehan. This stop motion piece follows a person taking a train as he listens to the sound of the train moving and people chattering around him.

“What I decided to do was break everything down and find out what sound effects were needed … and what things I would have to make myself,” said Belle Alatorre, a sophomore majoring in sound design who worked on “The Corona Express.” “I added the sound effects into Final Cut Pro and aligned them correctly and cut them and tried to bring the volume down and up and stuff like that.”

Engelsman said the worsening pandemic led to a change in the direction of Hidden Stories. The original idea had Hidden Stories take place on campus with doors that people could interact with. Now, with the project completely virtual, the door motif can be found in the Hidden Stories logo and visual stories instead.

“It was going to be kind of like a scavenger hunt kind of situation,” Engelsman said. “The more that COVID-19 progressed, the more virtual we had to go with our idea … It kind of went away from an in-person scavenger hunt to a puzzle piece experience on our website.”

Working on Hidden Stories required communicating with others online, including people from three different time zones. Most of the multimedia stories could be done remotely, like “The Corona Express,” which was done in one of the artist’s apartments. 

“Even when you’re not in the room with your peers and your co-workers, you can find them generally on campus and ask them a quick question, or you can send them a text,” said Sofia D’Annunzio, a junior majoring in stage management who helped facilitate some of the meetings. “It was harder to keep people accountable for communications. I wouldn’t say that specifically affected our project but just as an overall takeaway from online creation in general.”

Turner’s story submission, “Masked Madness,” however, called for a theater space to be used and for items to be requested from the campus’s scenic shop — the specialized workshop where props and sets are made. Props such as toilet paper and a fake dog were gathered with only limited staff allowed on campus and students could not visit the set.

“We had people who worked in our scenic shop able to be [on campus] but a very limited number of individuals,” said Domenica Diaz, concept creator and project manager of Hidden Stories. “We were all in L.A., but we were all Zooming in our respective homes, and we would have meetings twice a week for three to four hours with the whole team to do content pitches … but if anything needed to happen in the real world, in the theatre space, it had to be done through faculty or staff.” 

Choosing the stories to convert into a multimedia format required input by all members of the team. USC Libraries already had various entries in its archive. Tracking each story required the use of an Excel spreadsheet. The stories were then narrowed down to around 20 submissions and sent out to the other team members for feedback out of which six were used for the project.

When these six stories were published, Turner expressed her amusement at seeing the conversion of her submission into a fully-fledged artistic piece. Her story centers around discussions of how the pandemic had caused the loss of one of her friends and has led to Turner finding activities to do during quarantine, such as spending time with her pet.

“I thought it was really funny they included my dog,” Turner said. “There’s a scene where I’m making her food, and they had that scene where I was making the dog food, and I thought that was really cool.”

Other than doing the voiceover, Turner did not engage in the final project in any other way. Like many of the others who submitted, she gave the Hidden Stories team as much creative freedom as they liked.

“We didn’t have a lot of contact with the people that we were doing this with other than granting their permission or getting their permission to alter their pieces in whatever way, as an artistic expression,” said Mimi Bower, a senior majoring in stage management who also served as a designer.

Other members of the team also shared their personal experiences on how they felt working on some of the stories. Alatorre and Sydney Fabis, a sophomore majoring in theatre, both recounted the process of putting together Hidden Stories and the tasks they enjoyed being a part of.

“My favorite part was being able to bring research about how to be less ablest and how to open up more art forms to other people,” Alatorre said. “I brought in a lot of different color wheels and how [they help] people and how closed captioning on videos … can be more accessible to others.”

Despite difficulty in getting access to certain tools, such as paid versions of certain sound design programs, Alatorre successfully worked on creating the sound design for the animated stories, including “Love or Survival” and “The Corona Express.”

Fabis said she enjoyed being part of the collaborative process behind Hidden Stories and the unity brought in their online meetings. She had the opportunity to be in charge of the art direction featured in the story “The Last Trip Out,” which utilizes water color to tell the story of senior Megan Lacsamana as she processes the events leading up to the pandemic at the beginning of March. 

“I was in charge of the story, of the art direction, for that short film for the animation, and then I got to be in charge of two freshmen students who helped illustrate all my backgrounds for me on that short film,” Fabis said. “They were fantastic. They took my initial thoughts and ran with it and made these beautiful watercolor portraits like background paintings and landscapes and stuff.”

Overall, the reception to Hidden Stories has been incredibly positive with praise coming from different students and faculty. 

“People really seem to like [Hidden Stories],” Domenica said. “I had people in SDA who were not affiliated with the project, who were not even production students, text me about it and saying they really liked it. The USC librarians really enjoyed it. I got three emails from the librarians saying, ‘This is really cool, we really like this.’”

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Domenica Diaz as saying “SCA” instead of “SDA.” The Daily Trojan regrets this error.