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Theatre in the Digital Age

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One of the major questions facing today’s theatre practitioners is how theatre can remain relevant in an increasingly digital age. To me, the answer to the question has to do with the communal nature of the theatrical experience: in a world where we conduct most of our social interactions via screens, the experience of sitting in a room together and sharing an experience is more essential rather than less. That doesn’t mean, though, that theatre can’t benefit from the possibilities of the digital age. There are so many diverse and exciting ways that online content can enhance the theatrical experience, rather than replacing it (the existence of HowlRound itself being one case in point).

I’ve been lucky enough to see some of these possibilities in action while working on my play Connected. Connected is a play about social media and loneliness, and because of the subject matter, the theatres I’ve worked with have integrated social media into the theatrical experience in fascinating ways. The play was commissioned in 2011 by HotCity Theatre (which is no longer in existence) in St. Louis, Missouri, and they asked me to write a play that explored social media somehow. Before I started writing, I did a lot of reading and thinking about social media and its impact on society. At the time, social media was serving as a powerful force for change and openness in the Middle East. It was also enabling Rebecca Black to torture us all with “Friday.”

Social media has provided us with new ways to communicate, but it hasn’t changed our basic human needs: to connect, to tell stories, to reach out and make contact with one another. The theatre has been speaking to and about those basic needs for thousands of years.

It became clear to me that, like most paradigm shifts, social media was affecting us in ways that were sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always complicated, and I wanted to reflect that complexity in the structure of the play. Rather than telling a single story, I structured the play as four separate but interconnected vignettes, exploring different kinds of social media—viral videos, social networking, role-playing games, and online dating—and their impact on different kinds of people. More than anything else, I hope the play captures our feeling of contemporary loneliness: the loneliness of sitting in dark rooms looking at screens, of scrolling through other people’s Facebook feeds and comparing our lives to theirs, of wanting to connect but not knowing how.

The companies that have worked on the play thus far have come up with some unique ways of integrating social media into the promotion and production of it. In the initial production at HotCity Theatre, the director, Chuck Harper, devised a marketing campaign where the actors created Facebook profiles for some of their characters, and began posting and interacting with one another as their characters. The theatre sent out some marketing blasts explaining the project and telling audience members to friend the characters, and I acted as a sort of “show runner” for the project, sending out emails each week telling the characters the major events that would be “happening” in their lives.

Some audience members got really excited about the project, and ended up interacting extensively with the characters online before the show even opened. It definitely blurred the boundaries between real life and the world of the play, and I think it helped them feel like they were part of that world, rather than simply sitting and watching it. The actors also told me that it was a great acting exercise, because they had to think about their characters beyond what they were told in the script: their histories, their likes and dislikes, what they might be eating for breakfast on a Tuesday morning. For me, it was totally surreal the first morning I signed on to Facebook and saw a status update from a character I’d invented. It really literalized the idea of having characters “talk to you,” and reminded me of what I love most about theatre: the collaborative aspect of it.

cast photo
The cast of Connected at 59E59 Theatres.

In the current production, with Project Y Theatre Company (at 59E59 Theatres March 3-26), social media has been integrated in a different way. Project Y is generally interested in finding ways of connecting through the internet as well as in the theatre, and in bringing theatre into people's everyday lives through digital media. So the director, Michole Biancosino, encouraged me to write an additional scene for the play that exists only online, and can be accessed through a link that theatregoers receive when they attend the production. The version of the play that exists in the theatre is complete on its own, but the online scene adds an additional dimension, and explores the idea that "live action" and digital content can not only coexist, but can enhance one another. The play’s just opened, so we haven’t yet gotten a lot of audience reactions to the online scene, though one reviewer called it “an interesting and truly sardonic thematic twist” (Theater Pizzazz). I’m hoping that by literally bringing the play into their homes, it does so metaphorically as well, and causes people to keep thinking and talking about the issues in the play after it’s over.

Social media has provided us with new ways to communicate, but it hasn’t changed our basic human needs: to connect, to tell stories, to reach out and make contact with one another. The theatre has been speaking to and about those basic needs for thousands of years, and I have no doubt that it will continue doing so. Being together—physically present—in a shared space, for the beautiful and impractical purpose of art, will never stop being important. But it’s exciting to think about how technology can help us stretch and expand the boundaries of that space in innovative ways.

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A lot of theater professionals are doing web series. Actors get involved in web series to give themselves work and playwrights write the scripts because somebody has to brought in to write those episodes. Just today I discovered a really slick web series written by a playwright. It looked exactly like a television show and even had a television star playing a role.