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Directing graduate student Molly Donahue brings interactive theater to Athens in original play “ShiningGirls”

“ShiningGirls” is neither an average play, nor podcast event. Unlike a traditional play, audiences are not confined to a seat in an auditorium but rather are invited to explore the theatrical space alongside the actors and find their own supernatural stories to tell. 

“It’s a text-based immersive play about ghosts, sadness, loneliness and family,” said Molly Donahue, a third-year graduate student studying directing, and the show’s director. “Audiences show up for what is marketed as a live podcast event for a supernatural podcast, and then end up having their own ghost experiences and things really go off the rails in ways that have nothing to do with the podcast.”

Donahue was an immersive theater maker in Chicago before coming to Ohio University for her master’s degree, and worked with the trailblazers of immersive theater back when it was still a relatively unexplored art form. This experience led Donahue to decide her master’s thesis would be an immersive work. 

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“Immersive theater has a lot of different ways of being made, and I think that’s why it’s so wonderful, you can do it in any way you have the resources for,” Donahue said. 

“ShiningGirls” was written over the summer by Donahue, along with a team of five writers and some dramaturgs. The show was written specifically for the Baker Theater, allowing the characters and audience members to explore a vast space while maintaining a cohesive and safe theater experience. 

Audiences are given the chance to explore the space themselves, following their choice of character. They could follow the hosts of the podcasts as they guide audience members through their experiences in the haunted theater. Onlookers could also choose to follow any of the ghosts who emerged to impress the paranormal podcast listeners, or stay with the uptight corporate figure as she copes with her own reservations about the event. These multiple options give the show a choose-your-own-adventure element, which reduces the 200 pages of content to a 50-minute web of multiple storylines. 

One of the most unique parts of “ShiningGirls” is the sense of audience autonomy. Not only do audience members choose the character and subplot they want to follow, but the fate of many characters is put in the hands of the spectators, literally. 

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“One of the main mechanics in the show is that in order for a ghost character to function is that they have to be (physically) connected to a living audience member, and that was the impetus for the show. The idea was that I wanted audiences to feel responsible for the characters' needs,” Donahue explained. 

If the logistics of managing a content-heavy and completely immersive production weren’t enough, Donahue was also faced with other creative decisions that made the personal story even more difficult to tell. 

“It’s a lot of trying to figure out how to allow actors the opportunity to give these very vulnerable and horrific performances in front of very close and intimate audiences,” Donahue said. “Your art and the way you make that art, and then the logistics of planning that art, it all has to be really intertwined. Nothing is secondary, it’s a very holistic process, so it is both joyous and extremely hard.” 

“ShiningGirls” is a mind-bending and tragic depiction of the lengths humans will go to achieve notoriety, and how fast that notoriety can slip away when selfishness and greed takes over. Each actor portrayed their character with depth and passion, never letting the audience second guess the outrageous realism of the situation. The intricacies of the set and special effects contributed beautifully to that authenticity, shrouding the theater in an unsettling and spooky aesthetic. 

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“This show started off as a kind of meditation on how we exploit each other for the things that we need, and then it really became more about survival in the kindness that we need to give ourselves in order to survive, even when we do horrific things to do so,” said Donahue. 

Not only that, but Donahue also believes the show is also a wonderful way for those who don’t typically go to the theater to partake in a “live art experience.” 

December 22, 2023
Sophia Rooksberry, HTC ‘26