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Dispatches from LALA Land

Adventures in the OC

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was wary of attending the theater. LA is an industry town, and if there's one thing I'm not interested in, it's staged screenplays. Don't get me wrong—I love film. I just don't want to see it on stage. Because technology allows for far more realistic representations on film than we can ever hope to achieve live, I want to see theater that is truly theatrical—that makes use of the presence of the performers, the visibility of the apparatus, and the constraints of space and time. On film, moment-to-moment story is created through editing. In the theater, all we have is our bodies, the room, and the audience.

At the same time, the world we live in is increasingly technicized and increasingly virtual. "Reality" is no longer defined simply as "real life." Today we have many "realities:" who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire. If theater is to speak to our current conditions, it therefore must deal with the effect technological advancement is having on human relationships.


One actor stands on a chair with one on the ground reaching toward them, with three other performers and a screen backdrop behind them.
Actors in Eternal Thou. Photo courtesy of Holly L. Derr.


So where does an Angeleno go for theater that is explicitly theatrical but that also deals with contemporary realities that are increasingly technological? I missed Matthew McCray's Eternal Thou when it opened in L.A. last year, so I was pleased to see—via social media, natch—that it was being remounted at South Coast Repertory in Orange County (an affluent and politically conservative area just south of Los Angeles). South Coast Repertory is known nationally for it's annual Pacific Playwrights Festival of five readings and two productions of new plays. Less well-known is a program designed to strengthen ties to the local theater community and provide "alternative programming" to their traditional main stage: Studio SCR.

In order to bring their audience into contact with theater from the surrounding environs and to bring audience from those environs to South Coast Rep, Studio SCR provides brief residencies for companies and artists not located in Orange County. One of six productions mounted through the program this year, Eternal Thou is simultaneously a story about the invention and development of the internet and a philosophical meditation on the nature of human relationships.

Today we have many "realities:" who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire.

In ninety minutes, five actors—all of whom remain on stage the whole time—move in and out of a variety of realities. They enact both historical events, like the first computer-to-computer phone calls and the ongoing fight to maintain net neutrality, and metaphorical ones in which the characters move in and out of the internet itself. Essentially, Eternal Thou is sci-fi theater.

A cautionary tale of sorts, Eternal Thou perfectly fits famed-fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin's definition of science fiction as that which "extrapolate[s] imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire." The play embodies technological forces like computer code and hacking in human characters to create a world in which people are being "programmed," whether they know it or not. Via the philosophy of Martin Buber, it warns against the objectification of the other that necessarily results from technologically mediated communication and encourages us to hold on to the holy nature of human-to-human contact.

At the same time, the production celebrates the very technologies that threaten to overwhelm us. A combination of projections, electronic and live sound, television sets, and a scrim that makes some projections appear to be holograms, the designs of Sarah Krainin, Adam Flemming, Ian Garrett,and Joseph "Sloe' Slawinski entrance spectators even as the play warns against allowing technology to determine our fates. And yet despite the profusion of special effects, the audience never forgets they are in a theater: a mass of conduits and wires hangs in front of a table off to the side, only partially obscuring the director and stage manager running the show. The actors interact athletically with the design, and their physical presence as well as their vocalizations (they create some of the best sound effects) grounds the piece's philosophical and technological underpinnings in the real time of the theater.

The Studio SCR remount of Eternal Thou gave McCray a chance to cut thirty minutes from the piece and strengthen the story as well as the central metaphor. Partly because of that and partly because of the somewhat surprising open-mindedness of the OC audience, McCray confirmed that the reception was even more positive this time around than in LA.:

I really worried that because of the experimental nature of the piece, the South Coast audience might not be as receptive as LA, but actually they were more receptive. In LA I was getting notes from people like, "Just look at the form of movies. Go back to movies." At SCR I could feel them thinking. To me that's a message that even being as abstract as it is, the play provides a universal experience.

It's hard to imagine that Orange County residents who see these Studio productions will then travel north to see more of Los Angeles' experimental theater, but by bringing LA artists south, SCR is certainly expanding their audiences' notion of what the theater can be. That they can do that gives me hope that we can get the half of LA that can't stop thinking in terms of the three-act structure to consider the possibility of new forms as well.

In California—home not just to the film and television industry but also to Silicon Valley—the “media” is always the message, or as the play puts it:

There’s no division anymore, no division between what’s real and what’s not.

If theater is to speak to the technological here and now in which we find ourselves, new definitions of realism are in order, and in my opinion, science "fiction" is a great place to start.

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