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Smartphone Plays

a New Theatrical Genre

Essay by

Smartphone plays are an emerging genre of theatre that take advantage of mobile technology to create site-specific audio-based theatrical experiences. In most cases, the audience downloads an audio file onto an iPod, smartphone, or other mobile listening device, proceeds to a particular location, and presses play. One of the defining characteristics of a smartphone play—in contradistinction to a radio play, podcast, audio tour, or sound installation—is that the best smartphone plays juxtapose the intimacy of the dialogue spoken right into your ear with the vastness of the site you inhabit to create a unique theatrical experience.

For example, This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Ferry Play is a smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry. Armed with nothing more than a set of stereo headphones and an MP3 file, audiences ride the ferry while listening to the recorded production. The dialogue encourages them to pay attention to every surrounding sight, smell, and sound, and those elements then play a substantial role in the experience. The Upper New York Bay becomes the set, and voices from the ferry's past and/or present on the recording mix with live voices from other people on the ferry (who become characters in the play), leaving audiences to consider their role in the live performance event that is the Big Apple. Ferry Play is a self-scheduled performance: audiences can ride the ferry late at night, early morning, or any time in between—they choose the day and time, which then affects the experience they have. Ferry Play is unique in that it has two acts: the first act takes place on the ride from Manhattan to Staten Island; the second act takes place on the ride from Staten Island to Manhattan. Act Two can be experienced right after Act One, or hours, days, or months later.

Audience for the ferry play
Ferry Play. Photo by This is Not a Theater Company. 
sky line of NYC
Ferry Play. Photo by This is Not a Theater Company. 

Ferry Play creates a dynamic relationship between the recording (which never changes) and a site that is constantly changing. The view of and from the ferry is radically different on a warm sunny Sunday than it is during a snowstorm, at sunset, or during a morning commute. If your ferry has a snack bar—and if the snack bar is open—you can smell popcorn and hotdogs; if it isn’t, you can’t. Most significantly, the characters in the play change based on who is riding the ferry with the audience and what they are talking about. At the beginning of the play, a teenager looks around and says to her family: “look at that creepy guy over there.” Every time an audience member actually looks, there will be someone different to see: if the audience member sees someone they perceive as creepy, then they share the same perception; if there is a guy who doesn’t seem creepy to the listener, then the listener might decide the teen is judgmental; if there is no one at all, we begin to wonder if she is imagining things, or if this is a game she plays with her family.

Listen to an excerpt of Ferry Play.

Counterintuitively, smartphone plays use technology to get away from technology by inviting you to notice the world around you instead of walking through it while glued to the texts on your smartphone screen. Neworld Theatre in Vancouver produced a number of smartphone plays in 2011, including Look Up which invited audiences to consciously observe the environment they were walking through, and Dog of Your Understanding which presented the world from the point of view of a dog. Ferry Play juxtaposes the intimacy of someone speaking in your ear with the vastness of the New York Harbor. In Act 1, April speaks very quietly and intimately into our ears:

I was watching you. I liked the way you were observing things. It’s so nice to see someone by themselves on this thing. So many people but no one to talk to.
Because everyone is in groups. Or looking at things. Their laps. Their phones. Anything but each other. Most people don’t observe anymore. They look at things. But they look at them through little screens. Or they don’t look at all. They like to capture things on screens. Take pictures. I guess to prove you were somewhere. You really, really were somewhere. I just find—the more images we capture, the less we actually see. Maybe.

She says this while we are looking out over the water, while the Statue of Liberty falls behind the boat. These smartphone plays invite you to engage with your surroundings.

Smartphone plays use technology to get away from technology by inviting you to notice the world around you instead of walking through it while glued to the texts on your smartphone screen.

Precursors to the smartphone play include the radio plays of the 1930s, such as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, which were broadcast on major radio networks, had official sponsors, were preceded by a radio announcer, and made use of sound effects and theme music. Families would often gather in the living room and listen together, but these radio shows asked that the audience literally or figuratively close their eyes and imagine themselves in another place and/or time. They supplied auditory information and asked audiences to use their “mind’s eye” to supply imagined visuals. Contemporary versions of the radio play include Beneath the Ruined Tower of Zenopus! an original D&D drama produced by The Warlock’s Brew and distributed online, which invites audiences to “tune into the theatre of [their] mind.” Earbud Theater produces “audio dramas of the strange and unusual” in an attempt to prove that “you [can] stimulate minds without big budgets and eye candy” which points up one of the advantages of smartphone plays: they are cheap to produce and are therefore inexpensive or free for audiences who own a portable listening device. Wireless Theatre Company has produced a number of radio dramas in the UK, including several “binaural” horror plays, which distribute sound spatially through stereo headsets.

Smartphone plays have also developed out of podcasts. London’s Fuel Theatre produces several sets of podcasts: Body Pods are a series of twelve podcasts jointly written by artists and scientists, which explore different parts of the body in an artistic and educational way. My favorite is the one on the brain because it literally and figuratively takes place inside my head. They also produce a set of podcasts that are much closer to smartphone plays in that they are set at specific moments in the day. Called Everyday Moments, this series has a piece that takes place “first thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee, as an excuse to delay starting work,” although I did not find that drinking a cup of coffee while listening to the piece changed it in any way. However, “Everyday Moments 9—in the evening, in your bathroom at home, with the door shut, in front of the mirror” by Melanie Wilson is a fascinating piece about memory and reality that is substantially better when heard in the bathroom while looking in the mirror, and changes (with your mindset) when heard at different times of day. Fuel Theatre is currently producing a series called While You Wait which includes “…to be born”; “…in a queue”; “…for a cancer diagnosis”; and “…in a hairdressers.”

Listen to Everyday Moments 11: audio drama for private performance. Playlet by Adrian Howells, published by The Guardian.

Audio tours are site-specific and use portable listening devices, but most are strictly informational—and quite dry. Soundwalk, however, produces dramatic radio plays to be heard while following a specific route (laid out on an accompanying map) through a particular neighborhood, and are thus developing the audio tour into a type of podplay.

A sample of the Soundwalk Little Italy tour can be heard here (scroll down for the audio excerpt).

Rimini Protokoll, the German collective, has staged numerous site-specific audio walks, including 50 Kilometres of Files in Berlin (in German only) which, according to scholar Daniela Hahn, turned “an urban environment into a sonic space in which the city’s past and present converge, resonating with each walker’s step.” More recently, they presented Remote New York, which began at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and ended up (via a subway ride and an excursion through the Lower East Side) at NYU. Along the way, participants were asked to view the buildings and streets as sets, and to change their perspective by walking backwards. They were asked to see and engage with the city in a new and different way.

people walking through a grave yard
Remote New York. Photo by the New York Times. 
lots of people taking a picture
Remote New York. Photo by the New York Times. 

Smartphone plays also owe a debt to sound installations and soundscapes of the kind composed by Janet Cardiff. On the artist’s website, her 2013 installation Experiment in F# Minor is described as:

On a large table sits a collection of bare speakers of all shapes and sizes. Light sensors are inlaid into the edge of the table and as the viewers move around the room, their shadows cause the various sound and instrumental tracks to fade up and overlap, mingle and fade down. Numerous viewers in the room create a cacophony of musical compositions that vary according to where the audience walks or how many people are in the room. When the space is empty, the table fades to silence.

The New York-based Improv Everywhere is famous for its annual “MP3 experiments,” which send audiences to a particular site at a particular time and involve them in various activities in response to the voice of an omniscient narrator. In 2008 Improv Everywhere produced Audiogram, a smartphone play for about 200 audience members at a time in a Bronx park. This piece included the intervention of live actors posing as park rangers trying to shut the event down, and culminated with a live band so that the recording merged with the live action and the audience ended up clapping and dancing with the band. Audiogram merges the smartphone play with the notion of live site-specific theatre —obviously the full experience can only be had as and when those actors are on call.

Why are smartphone plays interesting? They often create intimate moments in public settings. You enter and become part of a landscape, but you are alone with your audio track. Or you are alone with your audio track while performing the same actions that a number of other people are performing because they are listening to the same soundtrack. Smartphone plays are simultaneously private and public. One of the best examples of this is perhaps Rotozaza’s Etiquette, which I experienced in 2008 at Veselka Café in New York City. Two audience members (A and B) sit at a table wearing headphones and responding to the prompts they receive in the recording, which include stage directions: “Place one finger in the center of the table. You’re touching the stage. The stage can be anything. It can be anywhere.” And dialogue:

B: What are you doing?
A: Reading.
B: What are you reading?
A: Ibsen.

The play between A and B becomes increasingly intimate as they arm-wrestle, look into each other’s eyes, and speak to each other across the table for twenty-eight minutes. I did this with a good friend, but others performed the play with complete strangers; either way there was an inescapable intimacy created by the physical proximity, the eye contact, the touching of hands, and the dialogue. Any awkwardness was mitigated by the fact that neither A nor B were “responsible” for what they said or did. Rotozaza calls this “autoteatro” because the audience performs the piece themselves, becoming simultaneously performers and spectators of their own performance.

How popular smartphone plays will become remains to be seen, but they are a growing genre.

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I just finished reading Bill Blake's book theatre & the digital, which you all might enjoy. He has some very interesting analysis of this "genre."

Thanks for this piece and for starting a conversation around this emerging theatrical form! I just wanted to add a couple more comments/resources regarding the work of the Australian collective one step at a time like this, and their pioneering approach to the form. After hosting their Chicago engagement of "En Route," Chicago Shakespeare Theater partnered with the company to develop "Since I Suppose," a plot-based piece inspired by "Measure for Measure." The production premiered in Chicago 2014 and then traveled to the Melbourne Festival.

The creation of this piece was profiled in the American Theatre Wing's "Working in the Theatre" series http://americantheatrewing....

and on the TCG Circle Blog http://www.tcgcircle.org/20...

Thank you for this! What an interesting project!!!

Another version of this sort of thing:
There is an app for Central Park (NYC) that geo-tags your location and plays background music as you walk around. The idea is that the app "scores" your walk. Sadly, it isnt very accurate and ends up seeming more like a walk in central park with some music playing on your iphone. But as the technology improves, all kinds of things can happen!!

We should also mention "En Route" by one step at a time like this, from Melbourne, Australia, which was one of the earliest walking tour plays, which they first performed in Melboure in 2009, took to Edinburgh in 2010, and Chicago in 2011. They've taken it around the world, and you can still arrange to experience it in Melbourne today. http://www.onestepatatimeli...

In 2011, the NY Neo-Futurists put together an adaptation of their "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" concept, creating "30 Plays in 30 Blocks" for the now-defunct Broadcastr app. (I miss Broadcastr.) It was an app that allowed you to pin audio clips to specific locations, so they would play automatically as you walked past.

Also, a current show: Forum Theatre's "Walking the City of Silence and Stone" by Stephen Spotswood. It's a multipart series designed to let you wander Washington D.C. immersed in the story. It's available as a podcast, so anyone can listen, but it's even more fun when you can walk the city.

As for radio itself, shows like the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet were designed primarily as continuing series, running for hundreds or even thousands of episodes. But there were also series designed specifically as theatre, whether anthology series like Lights Out or actual adaptations of plays & books for shows like the Mercury Theatre of the Air, which grew out of Orson Welles' day job in radio and night job on the stage.

Even better, BBC Radio has been producing audio dramas for decades--they have an Afternoon Drama series as well as a Saturday Drama, often full-length plays aired weekly, even newly-commissioned original plays. They're available worldwide through their BBC iPlayer Radio app for phones as well as directly on their website. Those are usually available for 1-4 weeks after airing on the radio.

Last but not least, speaking of podcasting, we should probably mention "Welcome to Night Vale," which is an insanely successful podcast series made by theatre people. And we're currently producing new episodes of "The Incomparable Radio Theater," which are set to start airing in June. That series grew out of two off-format episodes on the original "The Incomparable" podcast. There may even be some news of 2amt podcast series on the way...

Absolutely. Was just saying there are better, more specific radio-based examples than shows like Lone Ranger et al. Mainly wanted to bring in the other examples of site-specific work over the years, most of which is still accessible.

Another site that might be of interest: Detour, billed as "location aware audio tours," but which could also allow for easy creation of original works like this, too. https://www.detour.com/

Yes, thank you. Detour looks very interesting. Thank you for pointing that out.
Geo-tagging will - as the technology gets better snd more precise - a way to have specific things triggered at specific moments. That will add an interesting element to the conversation. Its not precise enough yet, but in a few years...who knows...

It's true the overall article was an attempt at an overview. The relevant section describes the second act of "Extremely Public Displays of Privacy" which (as I write in the piece) "is a virtual experience packaged as a walking tour." The main character performs on the screen of the smartphone on the same streets that we (the audience) are walking.

Very very interesting. Is it still available?

Are you familiar with Karen, the new app by Blast Theory? You might be interested in that (and stay tuned for a HowlRound piece because I'm writing one on that and a theatre piece that unfolds via texts to your phone).