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Podcasts and Zooms and Plays, Oh My!

Creating Non-Theatre

The email subject line from September 2020 was “Creating Something Special” and I truly think it will one day be reprinted in a textbook. The email from New York–based playwright and producer SMJ was sent to eight of their frequent collaborators, myself included, who were based all over the country. The idea seemed (relatively) simple: Let’s stop wallowing in all the things the pandemic took from us and start making something.

But the idea was even deeper than that. One thing I have always respected about SMJ—who I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with on several projects over the past three years—is their complete refusal to accept traditional approaches to art-making. They are always trying to push themselves and the form forward theoretically and pragmatically. With this project pitch—a project that would come to be titled Our Childhood Sucked (OCS)—SMJ thought they had found a way to synthesize both their thoughts on potential of the new digital theatremaking that had sprung up around the pandemic and their attempts to decolonize the art-making process.

OCS, from the start, differed from other attempts at “Zoom theatre” in that it was an attempt to use the limitations of having to create separately in nontraditional ways (surely few of us ever anticipated devising new work on an online corporate meeting platform) to actually create new models of art-making—models that, importantly, attempted to both demystify the creative process and give audiences more avenues to access the work, with the intention of deepening their experience.

Eight people in a zoom call together.

Top Row (Left-Right): SMJ, Ludmila Cardoso de Brito, Daniel Kunkel. Middle Row (Left-Right): Ezra Brain, Stephanie Fongheiser, Alizae Powell. Bottom Row (Left-Right): Talia Frank-Stempel, Danielle Truss.

Making Our Childhood Sucked

Before getting to the more theoretical aspects of this project, it’s worth describing the actual process of making OCS. The fundamental idea of OCS was to gather a group of artists to host a podcast together where we would discuss the impacts that different pieces of pop culture that we saw as children (defined as birth to college) had on our lives. SMJ would then take these podcast conversations and use it to write a new play which the podcast hosts would then be the creative team of—five actors, one director, and I was the dramaturg—developing the project as an “IRL” (in real life) play. As the project developed, we added zoom “performances” and audio plays, which are dramatizations of the artistic work that the characters in the play are making.

All of this was designed, first and foremost, with the audience in mind. The idea was that by recording the devising process (and eventually early read-throughs and notes sessions) and releasing them to the general public, we would allow audiences to engage with the “final” (quotations because is any work of art ever truly final?) product in a deeper way and/or be able to gain a different appreciation for the play after seeing it by being able to go back and see where it came from. It was an attempt to empower and educate audiences by demystifying creativity.

It’s a fascinating experience, as an artist, to have old and outdated drafts of a work living in public. Right now, anyone can go to Spotify and listen to a read-through of the second draft of OCS, which is almost unrecognizable from the current draft. Most artists, myself included, would have the urge to scrub those old drafts—I often call them “ghosts”—from existence; to hide them away in closets or Google drives. But the theory behind OCS is that showing audiences the creative process deepens their enjoyment and appreciation of the “final” version. Indeed, one of the most fascinating opportunities provided by this unique method of creating theatre is the ability to go back through the podcast episodes and find specific lines that end up in the “final” draft. This raises fascinating (and intentional) questions about authorship. This is why, from the beginning, SMJ has insisted on listing every name from the original company as creators on every iteration of it, whether they were directly involved in that particular production or not.

As of the writing of this essay, OCS has released eighteen episodes of the podcast, done two zoom “productions”, had one live production in New York, released one audio play, and I’m currently trying to convince the team to let me shoot the script as a film. All these different iterations of the work are distinct but also connected. In this sense, OCS as a project rises, above the traditional definition of “play” to being something new, unique, and deeply modern.

Five actors side by side on stage during a stage reading.

Pictured (L-R): Talia Frank-Stempel, Alizae Powell, Danielle Truss, Evan Moore-Coll, Annie Fang. Photo by Alex Settineri. Photo of live staged reading of OCS at the Tank in NYC in October 2021.

On “Non-Theatre”

We are in a brave new world of theatremaking and there are such people in it. Early in the pandemic, Erin Mee—a director whose work I have written about for Howlround before —said to me that the shutdown forced us to be actually experimental, in the sense that no one knew if any of it was going to work. That requirement to experiment is almost unprecedented in the modern theatre and has forced the current generation of theatre artists to discover new ways to create, stumbling into forming what is, in my view, a new art form.

SMJ and I have a long-standing disagreement about what to call “Zoom theatre,” as both of us take the position that it should be thought of as a distinct art form from traditional theatre with unique processes, aesthetics, and techniques. I call it “non-theatre” and they call it “anti-theatre” which certainly sounds better but I’m stubborn and won’t shift, so I will be using non-theatre in this essay.

Before getting into the differences and distinctions between traditional theatre and non-theatre, it will be important to define what I mean when I say: “traditional theatre” In a nutshell, I am attempting to synthesize the key elements of the art form from the Greeks to the present into a definition. In doing this, we can see three necessary elements: a stage, a performer, and a live audience. If there is no space to perform the play, then there is no play. If there is no one performing the play (in whatever sense that might mean) then there is no play. And if there isn’t an audience watching it live then it isn’t a play (but, rather, a rehearsal or a film). If these three elements are not present in some form (and certainly any and all of these can be experimented with or subverted) then what so many artists made during the pandemic does not fit the definition of theatre (in the traditional sense). Even the most experimental pieces of theatre still have some form of these three key elements.

Non-theatre (of which “Zoom theatre” is the most common form) does not subscribe to these basic elements because the “stage” and the “audience” are in flux. If we take the mantra that “every piece of theatre is site-specific,” then the site of non-theatre is vast and constantly shifting. As an audience member, I have a radically different experience of the work if I am laying on my bed, sitting at my desk, playing with my cat, walking around, etc., because I now have near-complete freedom to engage with the work however and wherever I want. The artists are no longer able to control one of the most basic parts of theatre: the space that it is being consumed in.

As a creator, I have far less control in non-theatre than in theatre. This lack of control shifts the relationship between creator and audience which, in turn, demands new techniques of creation. Actors in non-theatre now also have to serve as their own technicians, lighting designers, stage managers, etc. Directors have far less control of the images the audience sees, and writers are limited in the extreme. However, from great limitations emerges great innovation.

To put it bluntly, non-theatre in general and OCS specifically is a radical experiment in trust. Artists have to trust the audience to be present and engage with the work.

Innovation and Multiple Modalities

To return to OCS, we can see how the limitations of non-theatre fostered greater innovation. To begin with, because the artists couldn’t safely share a space together, it allowed for a greater geographic diversity of talent. Instead of only having to work with local artists or have people fly in at a great expense, we could hop on a Zoom call with whoever we wanted, no matter where they were in the world. Because of that freedom, OCS was created by artists all over the country who likely never would have met otherwise. This geographic freedom is somewhat unique to non-theatre.

Another benefit of non-theatre that OCS showcases is the ability to create in multiple modalities. To put that in more common language, we’re able to create multiple different ways to access the art. The podcast, audio play, Zoom play, and live play are all variations of the same artistic project but also could be engaged with completely in isolation. Many of the audience members of the live production of OCS in New York had never even heard of the podcast and, surely, there are people listening to the podcast who have never seen the play in any form.

This à la carte method deconstructs traditional theatrical practices where the creators have near-total control over what the audience engages with and empowers the audience by giving them multiple different ways to engage with the work in front of them, fundamentally changing their experience of the work. To put it bluntly, non-theatre in general and OCS specifically is a radical experiment in trust. Artists have to trust the audience to be present and engage with the work. They have to trust their collaborators to show up on time, get their lights and costumes in order, and do their own artistic work with very little hand-holding—after all, directors can’t really lead the actors in warm-ups or centering activities over Zoom. Artists also have to trust themselves and their aesthetic, as they will miss the validation or damnation of hearing an audience laugh, gasp, cry, etc.

Artists also have to trust that the work they made is engaging enough that people won’t just log-in to Zoom and then walk away from the computer. They must trust that, in the absence of audible audience reaction, they’ve created work that still causes a reaction. When developing a new piece of theatre, creators may sit at the back of the house and watch the audience’s nonverbal signs (laughter, checking watches, etc.) for feedback on how the work is landing. In non-theatre, that’s basically impossible. So, the artist needs to trust themselves to provoke the desired reaction without any confirmation of success. It’s terrifying, putting forward new work in non-theatre because artists have no idea how it’s going over. But that terror forces a greater level of confidence. Artists have to get their validation internally rather than externally. This is yet another way that the modality of non-theatre fundamentally alters the creative process.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d often make a joke to my friends and collaborators that I was too old to understand Zoom theatre but that “some NYU student was going to figure it out and write the poetics of Zoom theatre.” Working on OCS, I discovered that I had been thinking about it all wrong. Innovation in the theatre doesn’t come from one individual sitting down to create new forms. Rather, it comes from collaboration and creation; from making something, making mistakes, and adjusting. We are in a new world—one that none of us were prepared for. It is a collective process to figure out new ways of creating art and what this new genre of art-making is and what it can be.

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