“As a theatre artist, I love space,” Whit MacLaughlin is saying as we leave the building that houses both a theatre and the offices of New Paradise Laboratories, the company he founded in 1996, and travel to downtown Philadelphia for an unusual tour. The question we set out to explore is: Where do real space and cyberspace come together?
The answer for today: Rittenhouse Square.
But first, a detour—to New York City, London and other spots where theatre artists who share MacLaughlin’s penchant for the newfangled and his formal adventurousness have integrated digital media into the fabric of their performances.
Jeffrey Cranor had already written and performed in some 50 plays as an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists when he turned to Twitter. All his stage plays had a running time of no longer than three minutes—the company’s weekly theatrical series Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, presents some 30 new plays in 60 minutes—and so Cranor was used to theatre that emphasizes, as he says, brevity and wit. That seemed to characterize Twitter at its best, so he tried an experiment. He tweeted an “assignment”: Write a play on Twitter—no more than 140 characters long, a single Tweet—using two roles and a significant prop. Fifteen of the company’s Twitter followers complied.
@NYNeofuturists has been giving assignments every week since then. Over the past four years, almost 1,000 of the company’s Twitter followers from across the U.S. have written more than 4,900 one-tweet plays.
“Write a Twitter play featuring a deus ex machina,” Cranor requested in one. A typical response:
“Fella (with envelope): I have no stamp. Jesus: Here’s a stamp.”
Write a Twitter play that features a psychic:
“A: I went to a psychic today. B: And? A: I will die alone and leave no trace. B: But I’ll remember you. A: You’re dying first.”
Write a Twitter play that is an adaptation of an existing play:
“JORGEN: Sorry darling, life doesn’t seem to be turning out as we planned. HEDDA: Whatevs. (Hedda walks offstage and shoots herself.)”
“Vladimir: Godot? Estragon: Hold me. Pozzo: What the hell are you two talking about? Godot: . . . (Curtain.).”
Only once in the four years since the Neo-Futurists began their Twitter plays have they produced any of them live onstage. In the summer of 2009, as part of a street festival outside their East 4th Street theatre in the East Village, the company brought to life 54 of the Twitter plays, using actors, signs, props, puppets and sound effects. For a play by Lauren Sharpe (“Write a Twitter play with a big kiss”), an actor painted a target on his face, and an actress put an X on hers; then they kissed, accompanied by a recording of “Kiss” by Prince.
The company has not put on any Twitter plays since then. “Twitter plays are not written for the stage,” Cranor decided. “They’re written for Twitter.”
Still, Cranor is one of many theatre artists who have been using social media in one way or another for their art. Some employ it in the process of creation. Cranor himself has used about five of his own Twitter plays as blueprints to develop new stage plays. A playwriting student named Kate Mickere says that she is working on a full-length “musical extravaganza” for the Playground Festival at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama based on a Twitter play she wrote for the New York Neo-Futurists about Manifest Destiny. Late last year, the Battersea Arts Centre in London launched Scratch, an online platform designed to plug into existing social networks to increase audience feedback to theatrical works in progress.
Others have used social media as a kind of adjunct to their art. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt famously reinterpreted their musical Next to Normal into a month’s worth of tweets; the Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Romeo and Juliet for Twitter, titling their 4,000-tweet effort “Such Tweet Sorrow.”
The majority of theatre artists involved in social media use it as a marketing tool, of course. A relatively small but growing number of companies, however, have been incorporating Twitter or Facebook or YouTube—or a combination of all of these and more—directly into their live theatrical pieces. These include New Paradise Laboratories in Philadelphia and the New York–based Nerve Tank.
“Everybody uses social media for marketing—badly, I’ll add,” says Melanie Armer of Nerve Tank. “To put it on the stage is a whole different animal.”
As Chance Muehleck explains it, Samuel Beckett was the inspiration for The Attendants, a theatre piece he began thinking about soon after he and Armer founded Nerve Tank in 2006. “I was imagining what a sequel to Waiting for Godot would look like. It wouldn’t be a play; we’ve moved beyond that,” says Muehleck, who considers himself a former playwright.
The piece he and director Armer came up with had a tryout in a store window on 42nd Street before it was presented for six hours a day over three days in May 2011 inside the marbled atrium of the World Financial Center across from the site of the World Trade Center. In The Attendants, two performers stand inside a large glass cube, next to a sign that says: “You text, the cube responds.” Passersby text or tweet—their messages are projected onto the cube—and the performers respond physically (never verbally).
During the performance in the Financial District, seven performers rotated through the cube, wearing business attire and sunglasses (making them look more like characters out of The Matrix than Godot) but no shoes. One member of the makeshift audience tweeted: “Why do people wear suits? They’re not comfortable.” The words appeared on the cube; the performers tugged at their ties. Hundreds of passersby, many of them businesspeople, got into the act, their texts ranging from “the mind is a surreal landscape” to “bedbugs suck.” One tweeted: “I get it! It’s a CUBE-icle! Lol.” But another passerby wasn’t amused: “It’s horrible: They’re making fun of us; that’s our life.”
As a result of The Attendants, Nerve Tank has been invited to participate in TimeWave, which describes itself as “a new international festival fusing art, theatre and technology” that will take place over four days in April in Manchester, England, and in cyberspace. Performances will be presented simultaneously onstage and online, and there will be panel discussions with directors who have conducted rehearsals via Skype and “YouTube stars” who have “serious viral power.”
There is more visibility to the experimenting that is going on in Europe, but there are pockets of startling activity in the U.S. as well. The Nest Haunted House in Chandler, Ariz., integrates Facebook with cutting-edge technology to add an extra layer of spookiness to the experience: A patron enters a room to find framed pictures of his own friends and family, as well as a gravestone with his date of birth…and date of death. All but the date of death are culled from the patron’s Facebook page.
Whit MacLaughlin first became intrigued with what he calls “social media’s effect on our imagination” when he was working on a play with teenagers in Minneapolis in 2006. He was struck by how differently they behaved from a similar group just two years earlier. What had happened in the interim was Facebook.
“I asked how many of them use Facebook: 100 percent. How many text: 100 percent. How many had been texting while I have been talking: 50 percent.” If they were distracted in person, MacLaughlin noticed, they had relationships of awesome complexity and astonishing openness online, in sharp contrast to his own teenaged years.
Out of this realization grew New Paradise’s first experiment merging theatrical space and cyberspace, Fatebook.
Like Nerve Tank’s The Attendants, New Paradise’s Fatebook was initially inspired by a classic. “We started it with the idea of Macbeth,” says MacLaughlin, “but we left that so far behind that it’s embarrassing to bring it up.” It instead became a look at modern life for people in their twenties.
Preparations were extensive and unconventional. MacLaughlin sent out casting notices far and wide, asking anybody interested to first create a YouTube video; some 200 responded.
Eventually, MacLaughlin cast 13 people, who then created alternative identities, and, as those characters, set up real Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, including self-portraits. The characters posted regular updates over a period of several months, drawing thousands of “friends” and “followers” and viewers. A Fatebook website tied it all together, allowing visitors to explore by character or by such themes as “kissing” or “crying” and to see more clearly the interconnectedness of the characters.
In September 2009, the characters announced they were going to a party. “One more day of freedom,” tweeted the character Clayton Hughes, who was about to go to law school. “Thank God there’s a party tonight.”
The party, of course, was the performance. It was set up in an empty warehouse, where audience members followed the characters in the flesh and on 10 screens arranged in a kind of interlocking maze, in what McLaughlin describes as an attempt to recreate in actual space the experience of surfing through cyberspace. Each character had four encounters with other characters (and with individual videos created for the performance), a cycle that was repeated several times. The show climaxed with a car pulling up into the warehouse, out of which a man got out and fired a gun, accidentally killing a bystander (a character). “He was my best friend. R.I.P.,” Clayton Hughes tweeted after the show’s two-week run had finished.
A total of some 1,300 theatregoers attended the play Fatebook, 120 people at a time. And more than 10,000 have visited Fatebook, the site, from 84 countries so far. “The curtain hasn’t come down,” says MacLaughlin of the virtual space.
New Paradise followed up two years later with Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, a three-act piece with only two characters but greater complexity. For Act 1, there is again a website, in which each letter of the long title is clickable, and which again incorporates videos, Facebook and Twitter—also texting and Tumblr and SoundCloud and podcasts. Eventually, the diligent viewer learns that Fess Elliot (played by Annie Enneking) is a former singer-songwriter in what to the astute observer is Minneapolis (though the city is never explicitly identified). Beatrix Luff (Brittany Freece) coaxes her to return to her old career and to join her in Philadelphia.
Thus starts Act 2, which is a virtual experience packaged as a walking tour. During the run, NPL staff handed out iPods at Rittenhouse Square for the “theatregoers” to follow the action on-screen as they walk the same streets Fess is traveling. In the video (which is still available to anybody with a smartphone), the actress playing Fess dunks herself into the fountain in Rittenhouse Square, completely disrobes on Shubert Alley, then goes shopping for new clothes along Walnut Street. She dons a wedding dress, a gag and a sign in the back that says “Kick me,” all at the urging of Beatrix, who provides a voice-over.
“You get the feeling the real world has been fictionalized,” says MacLaughlin. We retrace Act 2 now along Philadelphia’s crowded byways.
There is remarkably little difference between the Philadelphia that’s on the iPod and the one before us in 3-D, except that the iPod segment ends by showing a poster on a bus shelter advertising Act 3 of the piece. That was an actual live event that took place in October 2011 in the basement of First Baptist Church, consisting of a concert by Fess of her songs (now available as a video online at the Extremely website). The stage performance was pointedly non-virtual, with New Paradise installing a jamming device to block any social media at the site.
One of the panels of Act 1 linked to Frame, which New Paradise also created in 2011 as “an ongoing 24–7 performance space.” Outsiders might consider it a website, but since New Paradise invites viewers to post their own responses, in words or works of art, it is itself a form of social media.
New Paradise’s latest theatre piece, 27, about rock stars who have died at age 27, took place in 2012 at Plays and Players Theater on a regular stage, much to the relief of some local drama critics who have struggled to keep up with the troupe’s virtual peregrinations. But it too had a social media component, albeit less elaborate: One of the characters set up a Facebook page.
“It is important to me that more and more people become aware of the possibilities of online storytelling,” MacLaughlin says. “Theatre tends to hold its Luddite credentials high. We fancy ourselves to be the antidote to all that digital stuff.” He believes it is the wrong attitude. “If we’re serious about reaching young and nontraditional potential theatregoers, we’ve got to think of the Internet as a delivery system, not just of marketing but of content.”
By content, of course, he means those old-fangled things called plays.
Jonathan Mandell writes frequently for this magazine.