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The < 3 G E N Project Explores Matrilineal Connectivity Through a Digital Theatre Lens

As theatre around the world finds its footing four years after the onset of the COVID pandemic, many artists are refusing to return to prior industry standards—be they related to work schedules, the subscriber model, or the very setting in which plays are taking place. Digital theatre has become a mainstay for many companies that previously created only in-person shows, offering another forum for audience members—some of whom may not feel safe or comfortable attending in-person gatherings—to partake in theatregoing. A pre-pandemic study by The Arts Council of England, published in 2016, cites that digital theatregoers are in fact more likely to attend live cultural performances more frequently than the average theatre attendee. Even before the massive adaptation and acquisition of new skills that the pandemic wrought, digital theatre was an extension of and an enhancement to our theatre landscape. We are just beginning to see the ripple effects of the increased access to live performance that digital and hybrid theatre provide, but the lower barriers to entry of more affordable tickets and more flexible performance times are a welcome result.

While the increased access digital theatre offers is certainly a boon to audiences and the arts, a greater possibility of connectivity doesn’t necessarily yield closer relationships. This disparity is poignantly felt across generations. As technology changes with increased rapidity, it can become increasingly difficult to find common ground for comfortable self-expression. Although the awkwardness of puberty or the agony of first heartbreak might strike a universal chord, the social context for these experiences has changed vastly over the past century, largely due to the double life we lead on the internet. Generational wisdom can slip through the cracks or get lost in translation if there’s no longer a common interface for those conversations. To confront these questions, a pair of theatremakers in Florence, Italy are devising a new work of documentary theatre that attempts to bridge the digital divide and invite generations of women into conversation on how to better connect.

Beatriz Cabur is a theatre director, playwright, and educator with over twenty years of experience making digital theatre. Giulia Cavallini is a director, actor, psychologist, and Gestalt psychotherapist who has helmed the Teatro Immersivo Firenze since 2019. Cabur met Cavallini soon after moving to Florence, Italy, in 2022, and the two bonded over their interest in telling contemporary, impactful, feminist stories. Their first collaboration to date is The < 3 G E N Project, a hybrid (digital-physical), immersive, and interactive performance, which explores the digital distance between members of the same family. Specifically, this documentary-style show will gather interviews with women who identify as grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, and craft characters from their responses as a means to explore the contemporary nature of these intergenerational relationships.

An AI-generated image of three generations of women.

Photo by Midjourney prompted by Beatriz Cabur.

Cabur and Cavallini feel it is important to center women’s experiences in this show for a multitude of reasons, not least that they themselves are women navigating the digital divide in their own lives. For example, while the global loneliness epidemic is not limited to women, over half of the 142 countries polled in a recent Meta-Gallup survey self-reported a higher rate of loneliness in women than in men, and social media use is an indisputable contributing factor. The < 3 G E N Project will touch on this and other effects of our digital era and intends to start real-life conversations by putting these social phenomena center stage.

The development process for The < 3 G E N Project consists of three parts: data gathering, processing, and staging. Cabur and Cavallini, in collaboration with two other therapists, have developed a questionnaire that will serve as the primary mode of collecting stories. This questionnaire will be disseminated in various formats to make it accessible to as many people as possible, including via this Google Form, in-person interviews, and on TikTok. (Readers are welcomed and encouraged to submit their stories!) Similar to other documentary theatre processes, like Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements series or work by The Civilians, these interviews will provide an invaluable databank for crafting characters, writing dialogue, and developing the themes present in the show.

The interview is crafted to guide participants on an emotional journey that leaves them feeling closer to their family members than when they started. Cabur says, “Dramatically speaking, it would be better for me, as a playwright, to ask them, ‘Tell me your family secrets, talk to me about your issues with them, do you have any resentments towards them?’ But we’re not doing that, we don’t want them to leave the interview with those feelings.” Instead, the questions prompt respondents to reflect on happy memories with their family members, enforcing the existing ties between them.

Both Cabur and Cavallini see the effects of the digital divide in their personal lives. Living far from her mother and sister, Cabur sees how difficult it can be for her eight-year-old son to develop relationships with family members he primarily visits through a screen. “Instead of technology being something that helps us connect as a family or as a society, it frustrates us as it draws us further apart,” Cabur says. Although Cavallini lives geographically closer to her parents, she still observes how technology preferences between the generations in her family are out of sync, which poses a challenge for closeness. While Cavallini appreciates the speed at which she can communicate information via text while multitasking, for example, her parents still want to talk on the phone. “Their need to use the phone to communicate is a way for me to stop and be present with them,” Cavallini says.

In phase two, Cabur and Cavallini will review the data they’ve gathered and create two byproducts: the show, and a booklet with exercises and activities for women to do with their families to strengthen their bonds. The activities will be tailored to members of each of the three groups: grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. Cabur and Cavallini intend for these tools to be broadly applicable to any women hoping to strengthen their family relationships, not just those who have participated in the interviews or attended the show.

We want to recreate in the theatre the way you experience life in your household. We will create three different worlds, one for each character, and if the audience wants to experience the other two, they can only see them sideways.

Finally, in phase three, Cabur and Cavallini will mount the show, which will be a hybrid live and digital theatre performance. Although they are waiting until they’ve completed the interviews to start developing the characters, they have a clear picture of how the staging will function, with the ambition of centering the Grandmother, Mother, and Daughter all as the main character. In order to do so, a circular stage will be surrounded by three seating banks: one seating bank for all members of the audience closest in age to the Grandmother, one for those closest in age to the Mother, and one for those closest in age to the Daughter. Interspersed between these three seating banks will be three large screens, so that each audience group’s view of the stage will culminate in a sectional screen backdrop.

A diagram of a round stage with multiple screens.

The floor plan for The < 3 G E N Project

Cabur and Cavallini plan to program different content on each screen that will carry the same emotional effect for members of each generation. For example, while those sitting in the Grandmother’s seating bank are watching a video of Elvis, those in the Mother’s seating bank are seeing a video of U2, and the Daughter group is watching Taylor Swift. In this way, Cabur says, “The audience experiences the performance differently, depending on the area they are sitting in. We want to recreate in the theatre the way you experience life in your household. We will create three different worlds, one for each character, and if the audience wants to experience the other two, they can only see them sideways. That’s the perspective you have on your mom’s life, you can only see it partially and skewed.”

Cabur is looking forward to further experimentation, building off her digital theatre expertise, in crafting this hybrid show. She started exploring digital theatre in 2012, inspired by an experience of directing a show long-distance. In 2013, she directed eight plays for a festival in Milan, all with varying degrees of digital theatre elements, which helped expand her repertoire of what is possible to achieve both emotionally and technically. In one of those plays, The Chef, one actor performs for one audience member at a time over Skype. Cabur wrote two endings for the play: one in which the audience member did taste the dish the chef was preparing for them, and one in which they didn’t. She never had to use the second ending; every single audience member attested to being able to taste their meal. In Lil’Bird, which premiered in 2017, Cabur crafted a one-woman show that was performed on Facebook Live, a precursor to Marion Siéfert’s _jeanne_dark_, hailed as France’s first “Instagram play.”

In 2020, Cabur wrote and directed the digital show Childbirth-19, a play crafted from interviews with women who had given birth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cabur invited doctors, nurses, and midwives to the premiere to learn from hearing these women’s experiences, and many audience members left the Zoom room in tears. Each experiment has allowed Cabur to develop her understanding of what is possible, given current technical limitations, and how profoundly she can provoke emotions from audience members, even without being in the same physical space. Cabur teaches several workshops, including one titled Digital Theatre Artivism, which shares her findings with those who want to develop their own digital theatre skills.

In The < 3 G E N Project, Cabur can imagine opportunities for headsets, earpieces, and other technological interfaces for audience members attending the live performance. Maybe the Granddaughter group will have an app with augmented reality (AR) giving them different information? The possibilities are endless. This subject matter is a global issue, and Cabur is thrilled they’ll be making an online show to reach audiences worldwide. By demonstrating multiple access points both in the physical staging and in the digital dissemination of The < 3 G E N Project, Cabur and Cavallini hope to extend an invitation to members of all three generations to come together and discuss these intimate issues.

Although the research phase is still in process, themes Cabur and Cavallini are expecting to encounter, drawing from their own experience and Cavallini’s interactions with clients, include loneliness, (dis)connection, identity, authenticity, and the rapidity of the digital world. Cavallini shares the story of one teenaged female patient who had such a physical addiction to her phone that she would become violent towards her mother when Parental Control settings turned the device off. Cavallini says, “Young people are creating an association between themselves and their devices, like it’s a part of their body. When the phone is off, they disintegrate, because they built their identity through and connected to the device, as if without the device they don’t exist.”

An actor with one foot on a ladder hands a book to another onstage.

Beatriz Cabur gives the text of White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, to Giulia Cavallini, before Giulia performs it. Photo by Eugenia Cesari.

Cavallini has also observed adults who are in such constant contact with their smartphones that they have trouble focusing on a given task if it’s not in their hand. The physical touch of the phone has replaced their comfortability with the physical touch of other human beings. This loss of personal connection extends beyond physical touch; Cavallini remarks how her own parents have lost easy access to medical, banking, and governmental institutions because of the automation of those systems, which leads to her parents often needing help navigating the new technology. One can imagine this increased distance from the mechanisms of our society isolates citizens from systems of power and contributes to a widening gap between individuals and their community.

In the United States, research on members of the “sandwich generation,” adults aged forty to fifty-nine who are supporting both a child over the age of eighteen and a parent over the age of sixty-five, indicates that this support is often not only financial, but emotional. A 2022 study from the European Journal of Population concludes that among members of the sandwich generation, women are inequitably saddled with the labor of helping their parents, adult children, and even grandchildren, and “sandwiched caregivers are less likely to engage in healthy practices, as well as experience stress and depression juggling familial roles and job obligations.” As gaps in technological knowledge deepen the digital divide between the generations, how will these relationships be impacted?

Cabur and Cavallini anticipate that mothers will be struggling in silence, trying to strike a balance between their coinciding responsibilities. Daughters are concerned with forging their own identity in the midst of a rapidly shifting technologic landscape. As for the grandmothers, Cabur predicts loss of independence and acceptance of obsolescence will be emotional arcs for this age group, although she doesn’t want to project until she’s had the opportunity to hear from the women themselves. Cabur is eager to develop the Grandmother character, as there are so few contemporary plays featuring complex roles for older women, despite a historic majority of theatre-going audience members being of that demographic.

If the energy of the audience affects the performance, that’s theatre.

Having built a career specializing in digital theatre, it is a natural extension for Cabur to turn the metaphoric lens back on itself and examine the ways in which digital spaces are affecting our physical relationships. For those wondering, is digital theatre “theatre?” Unequivocally yes, says Cabur. Whether an audience is gathered in the same room, in many rooms, or online, Cabur states, “If the energy of the audience affects the performance, that’s theatre.” What’s more, digital theatre provides an opportunity to expand the boundaries of our theatrical imagination. Over the past decade of creating digital and hybrid theatre works, Cabur has determined that the stage is in the mind of the audience. This reframing of the audience-actor relationship to place can also be seen in street theatre, and other companies’ intimate digital experiences, such as 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s A Thousand Ways, Part One, in which two long-distance audience members are guided through a structured conversation by a virtual robot. By extending theatre’s reach, it becomes that much easier to extend the emotional revelations and mindset shifts into the real world.

Cabur’s digital theatre background informs not only the form but also the content of this show, and Cavallini’s insights from her therapy practice keep the duo’s thematic exploration sensitive to their participants’ best interests as well as incisively relevant. While the project has a long road ahead, its creators can foresee its potential for shifting habits and relationships on a personal and societal level. As Cabur says, “We’re not all doomed to use social media because it exists. We can think about a world with different ways of communication.” With this ambitious exploration, The < 3 G E N Project promises to offer a striking example of creatively blending physical and digital theatre media for audiences of all ages.

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