The first tweet is alarming: “Breaking News – Subway accident at 15th St. Station. 21 believed dead, 17 injured. Cause is not yet known.” It comes from Patrick Hearson (@patcitypress), a journalist at City Press.
Actually, Hearson is not a real journalist—he’s a character in The 15th Line, a play by Philadelphia-based playwright Jeremy Gable written specifically for Twitter. Beginning on Aug. 31, 2015, and for every day following for eight weeks, the drama will take shape as a total of some 300 tweets by Patrick and three other characters.
“The idea came during a time in which I was working from home and spent a lot of time on Twitter,” Gable explains. “I was struck by how certain events were being covered first or more comprehensively on Twitter than on other news sources. I came to realize that this simple platform was combining the personal with the global, taking huge events and showing us an up-close view.”
That’s exactly what The 15th Line does: A reporter character gives the overview, and the other characters tweet about how they are affected. But in an irony of our digital age: The show is actually a revival. Gable first wrote and tweeted The 15th Line in 2010, when it unfolded every day over some two months. Now director and teacher Erin Mee will be doing the tweeting.
“I want my students to know about [social media] as an option for theatremaking,” explains Mee, an assistant professor at New York University, who teaches a course in the fall called Drama in Performance. “I want them to experience the unique dramaturgical structure Jeremy has created. The only way I knew how to let my students experience the play as intended was to retweet it.”
Her students (and anyone else who wants to experience the revival) will have to follow all four of the play’s characters on Twitter—and be patient. Patrick, the journalist, will most likely be tweeting in the morning when he comes into the office, while Angela, a survivor of the crash, and Seth, a witness, are both students, and may be tweeting in-between classes. Meanhilwe Dustin, whose wife was killed, is sure to have the most irregular schedule. (All the characters will be “performed” by a single person: Mee.)
“I am curious to see what happens to people’s level of engagement with a play that has 6 to 10 lines per day over the course of 8 weeks,” says Mee. “Particularly when those lines are dispersed among other tweets they follow that belong to real people.”
Once the play is underway, it would not be out of place for followers to react: “That’s so 2010,” and not only because that’s when Gable first created it. That’s also the year when there was a relative explosion of theatrical innovation involving the micro-messaging platform, which launched in 2006. (I detailed some of this in an American Theatre article a few years ago.)
In 2009, for instance, the Broadway production of Next to Normal unfolded a digital adaptation of the script each day for 35 days on Twitter. That was also the year that the New York Neo-Futurists began calling for one-tweet plays from their followers, a practice they continue weekly at @nyneofuturists, and Joshua Strebel began tweeting the complete works of Shakespeare, line by line in order every 10 minutes, using the Twitter feed @iam_shakespeare—one of several accounts to tweet the Bard to this day.
Also in 2009, Whit McLaughlin of New Paradise Laboratories created Fatebook, which cast 13 actors to portray characters, setting up real Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube videos for them, and climaxing in a “party,” a performance set up in a (real, not virtual) converted warehouse in Philadelphia.
In 2010, the Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Romeo and Juliet for Twitter, taking five weeks to tweet what they retitled Such Tweet Sorrow. Also that same year, a California-based theatre company, Tweatricals, set up shop specifically to “perform plays in real time on social networking sites,” but it disappeared in early 2011.
As promising and exciting as all this may have seemed five years ago, not much appears to have happened in this vein since then on Twitter. Digital experiments in theatre lately seem to be happening on other platforms: podplays like Ferry Play, by Mee’s New York-based company, This Is Not A Theatre Company, and texting plays, such as Computer Simulation of the Ocean and Dreams of Riley’s Friends, both by Physical Plant Theater of Austin. “To be honest, we never considered Twitter,” says Physical Plant playwright Steve Moore. “Text messages appealed to me because they’re so direct.”
But Gable is not ready to consign the Twitter play to a historical genre like the satyr play or Restoration comedy.
“I think the idea of a social media performance is still in its infancy, especially since social media is still in its infancy,” Gable says. “I’ve had people ask when I’m going to do another Twitter play, and I’ve been wanting to go back. But I want the story to be a natural fit for social media, rather than trying to force a story to adapt to the technology. And I think that’s the challenge with writing a story on social media—making sure that it’s a story that needs to be told in this format. However, as I think The 15th Line proved, the possibility is there.”
To experience the revival of The 15th Line, follow the fictional characters’ Twitter feeds:
Patrick Hearson: @patcitypress
Dustin Kinder: @dustkinder
Angela Giannini: @angiannini94
Seth Turnbull: @sethturnbull
General information will come from Erin Mee’s personal Twitter account: @erinbmee1