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A Twelve-Foot Robotic Arm, Like Chekhov Would Have Wanted 

Igor Golyak: Good question of what is real and what is not real, whether virtual theatre is real.

Tjaša Ferme: Yes. Well, whether theatre is real anyways. It's such an effervescent medium. You're creating realities that are not really there. I feel like as an actor and as a director, that's why I can never actually wake up in my dream. That's why I can never have a lucid dream, because what I do with my life is creating plays, is creating false realities and brainwashing myself that they're real, that they're the realities. When you dream, I'm doing the same thing. How do I differentiate one from the other?

Igor: Well, especially with virtual theatre where... Whatever that means, virtual theatre, I don't know. Theatre is theatre. But anyway, with a virtual medium, I think I know you're there, I think I know you exist, but I don't know. I'm making an assumption. The idea of somebody influencing your life, or actually, I don't know, making you feel something and you think that they're real in real time right now talking to you, but at the same time, performing something. And then the conversation is about performing. How do you know if they're performing? You actually don't know because you don't see a stage. You don't know if it's a performance or not.

Tjaša: Correct, but also everything that we perceive is an internal experience anyway. You are talking to me, but you are somewhat in my reality, through my screen. I see you and I hear you really in my head. Nothing's really out there. Everything is condensed and combined into an image subjectively inside of my own head. We don't know the discrepancy between the real world and the world that we perceive in our heads.

Igor: Yeah. It's just based on experience.

Tjaša: Welcome to Theatre Tech Talks: AI, Science, and Bio Media in Theatre, a podcast produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Igor Golyak is the founder and producing artistic director of Arlekin Players Theater and Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab in Boston. During the pandemic, he conceived and directed Witness, chekhovOS /an experimental game/, and State vs. Natasha Banina. He received a 2022 special citation from the Boston Critics Association for pushing the boundaries of digital space to create a new genre of theatre.

I feel like you're doing something that's really technical and with a twelve-foot robotic arm, oh my god. That's almost bombastic, but the experience that I'm getting as an audience member is really intimate. It's kind of magical. It draws me into an inner world. It doesn't feel gimmicky or superficial at all. I want to compliment you on achieving this, which seems impossible. And I know how much work it requires to create worlds in which tech is so integrated that it doesn't feel othered, right?

Igor: Yeah.

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Tjaša: So how did you get here? What happened?

Igor: So what happened was at the start, our theatre company is based outside of Boston in a small town called Needham. Needham, Massachusetts. We have a studio with about fifty-seat theatre and we invited the director from Czech Republic. He came here and directed the play, and this was 2019, and then the pandemic hit. And so we had to close down the show. It ran only for a week or so. We had to close it down, and then we had to figure out what to do. Just so you know, in Needham, Massachusetts we're rated on TripAdvisor number two after a gas station. There's a gas station in terms of things to do in Needham, Massachusetts, and then there's us. We're trailing—

Tjaša: Congrats.

Igor: Thank you. It's not by far, but trailing the gas station.

Tjaša: But you're in front of a restaurant.

Igor: No, no. Restaurants have their own category. It's under a category, things to do in Needham, Massachusetts. It's like, get gas and maybe see a show. We're doing well. Actually, we are—

Tjaša: That means you're a necessity. Imagine that you're as necessary and as essential as gas.

Igor: You're so positive. You're so positive. Let me be bashful on myself a little bit. But it's a good story because it starts with that and then it ends with two New York Times critics’ picks. It's a good start. As a director, start from something, that Cinderella story.

Tjaša: From rags to riches.

Igor: There's no riches. But anyway, so pandemic hit, we had to close down the show, and then we had to figure out what to do with our lives, how to pay for the studio that we are renting and so forth. We had a show called Natasha's Dream. A couple of years before that we went to festivals with overseas. It's a one woman show, and we decided, let's figure out a way to play it to the audience. We were stuck at home, and this was my partner at the time, so we decided to put it up to see what happens if we experiment with it. I went on a hacking spree and researched a ton of, I don't know, different types of software, put them in conversation with each other and figured out a way to get this up, to get State vs. Natasha.

As soon as we were about to open, I understood that none of this works because it's no different than a film. Why would somebody come and watch that show if they can do something on Netflix, if they can watch something on Netflix? And so I realized that there has to be an approach that is different, that incorporates theatre, incorporates film because it's on a two-dimensional screen, and also incorporates maybe some type of gaming where there's some sort of agency in what you're doing.

In going into State vs. Natasha, just like going into a new theatre space, physical space, I ask myself, what is the advantages and disadvantages of this space? And in trying to answer that question with a virtual space, there's a advantage, for example, is that there's direct communication, everyone is seated on the front row, anyone can watch it from anywhere, there is a parallel narrative that can happen in the chat and people can respond to things immediately, and I can get that feedback immediately as a director/an actor. In light of all of those things, two days before the opening, we scrapped everything and designed this interactive version and experimented with that, and people responded. We went to international festivals with it out of our living room. We had people from forty different countries visit, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht and other celebrities. Then New York Times came. So my little theatre in Needham would never have had these guests as this virtual piece, for the lack of better word.

Tjaša: This is fantastic. I love that you're telling me all about the little town, Massachusetts gas station, and all of a sudden the New York Times review. Yay. That's how it works. I'm curious, it feels like something was invented here. The way you worked with the space, the way you actually had live animations over-posed a live stream of a live performance. How did that work? How did you make that happen?

Igor: It's just layers of video. It's just technology that wasn't used. I mean, it's very well-known technology, just it was never used for live performance or theatre performance because there was no need. I don't feel like I invented anything. I was just following what I was taught. You get into a new space, like if you're directing something at a gas station, you're going to incorporate a gas station, or you're directing something at a train. For me, any space, be it real or fictional or virtual or whatever it is, is a site-specific space for a production. Any space is site-specific. Any theatre is always site specific because it depends on what the shape of the theatre is, depends on how you're going to impact the audience. Is it the more direct impact or is it an architecture where the energy is contained, more round architecture and so forth? When I design a show, I design for that specific space just like I did with this virtual space. So for me, it wasn't anything that I invented. It was just what I was taught at theatre school.

Tjaša: Fantastic. Great teachers. Did you say that you actually had a screen that you were projecting on?

Igor: No, no. It was just layers of video. It was just layers of video that were triggered. Basically it was like five different pieces of software and she didn't see them. She saw them on a monitor outside, but it was like couple of layers on top of her video and that's where the animations... That's where they came from.

Tjaša: Fantastic. And you figure this out, you put all the softwares together?

Igor: Mm-hm. Yeah, it was me, my dog, the actor, actress, and my sister, because we were isolating. That was our pod, so that was it. My sister ran the show because I was pacing back and forth. So she ran the show by clicking spacebar and the actor performed and the dog was locked in the bedroom.

Tjaša: But how did the dog contribute to the development and layering of the software?

Igor: Very importantly, because the thing is that the dog, when she sips, it's very, very loud. It was something we either had to incorporate in the show and make it a part of the show or not. So by having a negative space of the dog, we came to this production.

Tjaša: Negative space of the dog. Yes. Okay, I love it. Let's just give the audience a little bit of context, what Natasha's really about. In State vs. Natasha Banina, a girl tells the story of her life in a small town orphanage. When she meets a journalist who takes an interest in covering her hardships, she becomes infatuated with him, then obsessed until she's driven to commit a crime of passion. At the end, the audience votes on her fate, guilty or not guilty? Look, I will just tell you my personal experience while watching Natasha Banina. I haven't had this kind of a profound experience in live theatre. Certainly never in any kind of virtual experience. Like I said, I dreamt about you the entire night, even though obviously I was watching the actress, not even you. But I guess there was almost like a little encoded stamp of you coming through the screen, which was... I don't know.

That's never happened to me, but it was a very deep emotional experience. And I found myself just completely enamored and just thinking about how human story and human questions are so important in theatre. Not really the gimmicks that just bring them to us, right?

Igor: Yeah.

Tjaša: And make it more innovative and interesting. But what you really take away is the emotional experience. With this girl, you just find yourself routing for her so much. Then you ask yourself, which is also a big question, even in neuroscience, et cetera, are people really responsible for what they do? What does it mean for their responsibility? Let's say they have a temporary disease or a tumor that comes up. Then also, on the other hand, society's response to just locking people away and not having a conversation and a process of integrating people in society with any kind of problems. So, I'm your fan. You got me in.

Igor: Thank you.

Tjaša: Thank you so much.

Igor: For me, the other question that really interests me as an immigrant, something that has kind of stayed with me for a while, is people coming from different worlds and different worlds colliding. Her reality or her world, her universe in the universe that she exists in, is completely different from the universe that everyone else exists, like the normal world exists in. It's difficult to try somebody, that has their own way of living in their own universe, in their own world, by the standards of our world and vice versa. So for an immigrant, I'm sure you have felt these situations as well, where it's just completely different. And something that is completely unacceptable in our world and universe and culture is completely acceptable here and vice versa.

Tjaša: Absolutely.

Igor: What if you take that to the extreme? And that's what happens.

Tjaša: But that is one of the problems of globalization, that everybody's looking at one mold of what's correct and trying to, among cultures and traditions, perpetuate it and judge other people, and even impose judicial systems on different cultures through their own lens.

Igor: Or just judge, in general. On the street we judge people, but then what do you do if you don't judge? You have to have some sort of a protection layer. So it's a question and it's what I like to do, is try to figure out those questions. I don't have an answer, unfortunately.

Tjaša: Tell us a little bit about your journey. Now, you're the hotshot director, next show's going to be at BAM, it's a part of Under the Radar. But you actually immigrated to the States when you were nine from Ukraine, and you kind of felt a little bit unseen by the mainstream media when you were really looking for a space to work in the States. Then you created your own community, you created Arlekin Players. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Igor: I left at nine, I came here at ten and I was trying to figure out my life, went to school here and I didn't really fit in. Those two worlds colliding that I was talking about is something that these are the roots of the problem. Then I decided to go to school in Russia. I applied to school there, I went to an acting school, an acting program at the Vakhtangov Theatre Institute. Then I went to get my directing degree, which was a master's degree at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts. Then I came back here, and in 2010, I created this studio, this theatre where basically I just taught actors.

I taught people that wanted to figure out... Partly it was figure out who they are, but partly it was they wanted to perform. These were not professional actors. They were refugees that have come, mostly in the same wave of immigration as I have, from the former Soviet Union to the United States that have figured out their lives in terms of financial stability, in terms of job and life. But something was missing, and what was missing is, why are they here? Once they got the financial stability, why are they here and what are we doing? What are we living for? What's the purpose? So they came to me and that's where our conversation started, and I asked them for a nine-month commitment. And I said, "Maybe at the end of the nine-month commitment, we'll have something born," and we did. We had the theatre born.

Tjaša: Bravo. That's awesome. Do you still work with them?

Igor: Yeah.

Tjaša: Or are they still the majority of your actors and collaborators?

Igor: Absolutely.

Tjaša: Amazing. Amazing. Let's talk a little bit about The Orchard and the technicalities of it. Why is there a big robotic arm on stage serving coffee, sweeping, and basically zooming between different people in different shots?

Igor: I thought that that's what Chekhov would've wanted.

Tjaša: Tell me more. Did you get that through a dream?

Igor: No, no, I didn't. Why is there a robot? Again, Cherry Orchard had a long journey. Not a long, long one, but there was a journey. After Natasha and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Micha reached out and we met and we were thinking about what to do. And also Jessica Hecht came to see Natasha, and we spoke. And then we had an idea of, why don't we do a reading of The Cherry Orchard? Because it seemed like during the pandemic, there was a loss of agency. People felt like there was a loss of agency. There was life, and they knew what was happening, they knew what was going on, they knew everything that was set up, and then everything was taken away. It doesn't matter how rich you were or how poor you were, it's just a loss of agency.

Now the world is different, and there's nothing that you could have done to prepare for it. It just is. And so we decided to have a reading, and we did have the reading, and it sounded very much about the time of the pandemic. Then we decided, why don't we do a virtual piece? So we filmed for six days. No, we filmed for three days and rehearsed for three days at the Baryshnikov Art Center. And we made a virtual piece called chekhovOS, Chekhov Operating System. That was the first part of this journey of The Cherry Orchard, which at that point was called chekhovOS. That got a New York Times Critics Pick. That was our second one. Then we decided, since we've done that already, let's do a full production. Let's have a hybrid production, an in-person and virtual production with different experiences of audiences experiencing one thing in real life in the theatre, and virtual audience at the same time having a different role to play.

So in thinking about what could be on stage in The Cherry Orchard, my thinking was again about the pandemic, about the time that we were in and how fragile people are in general. How fragile our life is, how fragile our desires are, and that we almost have very little choice. It's a presumption of choice that we have. We assume, we presume that we make decisions, but in the grand scheme of things, it's laid out, or not laid out, but even worse, random. Randomness is much worse than any sort of order because it means that nothing matters—

Tjaša: That you have no control.

Igor: Yeah, there's no control, there's no structure to anything, and there's no way to make any conclusions of anything because it's just randomness. And people live in this randomness. And opposed to that is a robot that lives in a very specific structure, that lives by a program. What was interesting for me in The Cherry Orchard is the study of this randomness of existence and randomness of existence in the humans by something that's very structured. That's why he's looking at them. It's like a toy, because the play starts in a nursery. Starts almost like a big toy, but also it's a way of looking at humans and looking at their choices. Why can't she sell the cherry orchard? Just sell the cherry orchard. There's some reason that she can't, and this robot is trying to understand.

Tjaša: Was there somebody manipulating the movement of the robot, where the robot looks?

Igor: Those movements were all pre-programmed. It was choreographed and then we used 3D animation software to program what happens with the head of the robot, where he looks, what he does, and so forth. So all of those movements, of course, were pre-programmed because otherwise it has a, we called it, circle of death. Because it doesn't know that it can hit somebody and it doesn't know that it killed somebody. It builds cars, it can lift tons and tons of weight, so it had to be very, very well-structured and programmed so that there is no randomness.

Tjaša: Sometimes it would show the stage direction of something that happened on stage, and there was a little icon of the robot next to it. I almost imagine that the robot is sometimes like a narrator.

Igor: Yeah, that's exactly it. Basically, that projection was like the terminal window. It's the internal analysis of what's happening for the robot.

Tjaša: So for the virtual experience, there are six different virtual rooms, and each time you visit, you can only see three. Cool. Why did you decide that your guide is Chekhov himself, not one of the characters?

Igor: Because it's Chekhov's world, Chekhov's operating system. That virtual environment that people come in and the rooms that they see are the rooms of the lost world, beautiful rooms that are lost. I don't know, I never asked myself that question, why him? Because the thing is that one character would be a point of view, almost. With the author leading through his worldview, it's not necessarily my worldview, but it's Chekhov's worldview. This idea, he was writing this play as he was dying, and again, it's the same idea of loss of agency. Him being a doctor, and at the same time, dying from a disease feeling like there's no way to turn anything around and losing these worlds. This play is just one of the worlds that is being lost/sold, like the cherry orchard. The audience were able to bid on the cherry orchard as people that came into an auction.

One of the things that I thought about when I was doing Natasha and chekhovOS was, what is the role of the audience? It's very important in a virtual theatre or virtual production like this to figure out something active for them to do. Otherwise, they're just passively watching a movie. What is their role? In Natasha, they're playing judges, and actually they have all the agency because they decide what happens to Natasha. And in Cherry Orchard and chekhovOS, they presume that they have agency, but at the end it turns out that they don't.

Tjaša: Are they bidding with their actual money or some imaginary currency?

Igor: So this is what we did, they were bidding on an NFT of the Baryshnikov Art Center, which was the house in The Cherry Orchard. The virtual version of it was actually a copy of the Baryshnikov Art Center. So he was going through his own center as Chekhov. So yeah, some people decided to pay money for it, and they did pay. It wasn't a lot, it was like fifty bucks or something, but it was an actual minted NFT for that show, and that's what they got.

Tjaša: That's awesome. I knew that the audience was voting for Natasha, guilty or not guilty, but I guess I just so powerfully felt that she was innocent. And when I saw guilty, I was like, "Ah." I just felt like for a moment I was like, "This is rigged. In the actual play or in the actual real life she was found guilty, but this is not the actual poll from the actual audience members—"

Igor: It was absolutely—

Tjaša: Are you telling me… who are those people?

Igor: It's a funny story. So all of the shows we did in the United States, she was found guilty, and couple of the shows we did at International Festivals, she was found not guilty, but they were outside the US. Same show.

Tjaša: What does technology mean to you?

Igor: It's just a tool to make it feel more acute, with technology. One of the productions we did was called Witness. It was about a ship in 1939 that traveled after Kristallnacht. By the way, today is the eighty-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht. In 1939, it traveled from Hamburg to Cuba with nine-hundred and something passengers on board. All of them were Jews trying to escape Germany and Nazis, and they couldn’t. Cuba didn’t accept them, nobody accept them. They all ended up going back and a lot of them perished in the Holocaust, of course. But the play was about that. It was set in a virtual world. We created a virtual version of the ship, and we partnered with the Holocaust Museum on this production. And we found out that according to the archives in the Holocaust Museum, it was interesting what these people did on this boat escaping Holocaust and escaping Nazism. And because some of them were already in concentration camps, they had talent shows every day.

Tjaša: Wow.

Igor: So there were talent shows in our production of people basically saying their journals that survived through a talent show number. But anyway, the point is at the end there's a sound of Yom HaShoah, which is the commemoration of the Holocaust in Israel, and it's built up emotionally that ship becomes about today, and it actually is very much about today. I see on Zoom, because I could see people's cameras, and I can see that when the sounds, people start getting up from their seat. I see some of the old ladies just trying to get up and barely...

And this is what we started with, and this broke my heart because they don't see each other. They see the main character. Sometimes they see themselves on the screens as part of the show, but this is something virtual that is happening right now, and they feel like it's so important that they stand up. And ultimately, it's about that. It's this virtual connection that we created, and technology lets me do that and lets me remove some of the borders that are put up by space and time. In the end, it turns out that technology, because we are breaking time and space, helps break Aristotle way of theatre.

Tjaša: That's good. Tell us a little bit about what's coming up. What's going to BAM, what's going to be performing at Under the Radar?

Igor: Well, I'm super excited about this production. It's called Our Class, written by a Polish playwright in 2009, I believe, his name is Tadeusz Slobodzianek, and it's about ten classmates. It's partly inspired by, if you remember, the Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class. It's about ten classmates that live in a small town in Poland called Jedwabne. This is completely based on true events. Eight out of the ten characters were actually real people, and some of them you can find online, there's interviews with them. So classmates, it starts in around 1926, and by the time of the... This little town has about 3,200 people living in it. Half of them are Jews, half of them are Catholics. And during the German occupation, starts with Soviet occupation, then German occupation, then again, Soviet occupation.

During the German occupation, the citizens of this village gather all the Jews in a barn and burn it down. Some of the people escape, some of the Jews escape, and then it tracks their lives. The Catholics and the Jews that had survived, tracks their lives to 2000s. It's a story of these classmates. It's not a black and white story, it's a different story. The reason why it is different, or one of the reasons why it's different, is that it was always actually told by the Catholics, by the Poles, that it was the Nazis that had done this. In 2000, there was a book that came out with big research by Yan Gross. He's Polish American, I think he taught at Princeton, and he came out with a book called Neighbors, based on testimonies, and he dug up that it was actually the Poles that did it, the Catholics. And then it stirred up huge commotion in the way that Polish people, kind of, what their narrative is about what happened.

Based on this research, there was more research done, and it actually was proven that the Nazis had nothing to do with it. That's the story, and I'm really looking forward to it. We have a beautiful team from all over the world, including Ukraine, Russia, America, Israel. We have our designer from Germany, his name is Jan Pappelbaum, he's from Schönbrunn Theatre. Incredible, incredible designer. When we went on this trip to Poland to see this town and to do some research there, and Jan came also to do some research in that place, and it was interesting. It was like a Jew, a Pole, and a German walking around.

Tjaša: Oh boy. What kind of technology are you using? What are you bringing in for this production?

Igor: That's still being designed. That's a secret.

Tjaša: Okay, I love that. That was one of my questions. What's your secret or what's your secret obsession?

Igor: What's my secret obsession? My secret obsession is people, is humans. It's trying to figure them out and connecting with humans, connecting these different worlds with different histories, different cultures, and trying to see what is common and what is not.

Tjaša: You can catch Our Class January 12th through February 4 at BAM Fisher as part of Under the Radar. Igor, thank you so much. This was amazing. Bye.

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Tjaša; brilliant - love your questions and your delight in finding a kindred spirit in Igor, who i also resonate with his challenging the status quo and both his and your puzzler minds  - i appreciated Igor's interest in what its like to be human which coincidentally haunted Oliver Sacks to the end of his life - i am sure he was still writing on his way to be buried at his own funeral too

Igor: What's my secret obsession? My secret obsession is people, is humans. It's trying to figure them out and connecting with humans, connecting these different worlds with different histories, different cultures, and trying to see what is common and what is not.