It was a rainy night, two Fridays ago, when I ventured down into the heart of the village towards the Players Theater. Despite the rain, the streets were crowded with tourists, students, party-goers and village dwellers. I pushed passed these folk because I wanted to check out NYLive!, a live, web-based, interactive, variety show. It sounded like an event close to my heart since one of my main interest lies in viewing live theater on the web. My mentor, who works behinds the scenes, invited me and I was pumped up about seeing an event unfold in front of me of something that had only lived in my imagination.
The show was already in progress as I walked in. On the stage was Broadway Star Karen Mason belting out to a very enthusiastic audience. In the center aisle was a cameraman, and flanking both sides of the stage were two extra cameramen – 3 cameras in total focused on the diva as she sang to both a live audience and a virtual, live audience. Since I’ve worked in television before, the set-up reminded me of a T.V. studio, though lower tech. As the night went on and a handful of talent paraded in front of us – a comedian featured on the Today Show, The Glamazons from America’s Got Talent, the Native American from the music group The Village People, and a ballroom dancing couple – I felt as if I were trapped in some kind of vaudevillian dream of the future. Perhaps this is what the early days of radio, and even television, felt like – borrowing from theater and live entertainment to push a new medium.
In between each act a bell sound cue would go off and the host would read comments from people that were watching from their computers. It was a treat to hear as viewers flirted with the Glamazons through their comments and fawned over the lone Village person, who was very excited to be there in the spotlight and sweating. After about 45 minutes of uninterrupted entertainment, I left the theater/studio emboldened in my quest to one day be able to sit in front of my own computer and watch quality actors in a quality play or musical, and live.
It’s an experience that I personally would pay for – like pay-per-view fights or concerts. Imagine that your favorite actor was performing in a play in another state, or that you were in Florida during the run of Shakespeare in the Park’s INTO THE WOODS, or that your favorite regional theater was having an out-of-town tryout of a Broadway bound product…. It’s an idea. And more importantly than the idea, it’s an idea that is taking shape.
This fall I have the amazing opportunity to help this idea, and other ideas in this genre, to become a reality. The TimeWave Festival, for which I’m one of the many writers, is a trans-continental experiment. Produced by LoNyLA, artists from Great Britain, Hong Kong, and the US will be collaborating on different kinds of web-based theater. As one of the producers John Gould Rubin puts it, it’s a chance to “be disruptive”. “It's by disrupting common practice [that] we innovate, and such disruption normally contravenes our notions of what’s wise.” So, I suspect that those of us participating in this festival will come to the table with very different approaches to theater, to technology, and to the melding of the two. We will be creating as we go and, even more importantly, we will be open to results and implementing those results towards our own artistic endeavors in wildly different ways. 2 John, who is a celebrated actor, director and artistic director of the Private Theater, is currently rehearsing “an international Peer Gynt project right now via technology, as we have people involved from three countries. [It’s] the technology that makes that possible, and the rehearsals are becoming material for the show itself, because we tape them and record them, and the very act makes some of the work self-reflective.” He became a producer of the festival because he believes that technology can have a positive effect in bringing out the “unexpected”.
“One could perform with a mix of what can or can't be seen, what's in or out of frame; how to hide, what is the range of sound... It should develop into its own genre of theater work.”
Admittedly, this idea of using the technology as a tool of creation and collaboration instead of simply a transmitter of images and sound for the benefit of the viewer’s entertainment is a different approach than the one I’m pursuing. Still, I’ve found this band of rogue theater makers who see technology as an important step in the evolution of what we do, and there is no looking back.
Jesse Ricke, who works at the Culture Hub and is one of the brains behind the technological set-up for the festival, believes that once venues start to enfold these tech-practices into their performances, then “it’ll become a force of nature” instead of merely “cool”. “When we do this stuff over distances and [we] broadcast it, we expand the scale of the performance… What we do with Contact [Theater in Manchester] we can do with a lot of confidence – [an example is the Digital Duets Performance]… [Still], we're just the first ones out of the gate, but the mainstream is inevitable. As we get better at this we'll start to figure out how to treat the tele-theater as its own form. Redesign of live narrative for the network is the central challenge with making it mainstream. And hell yes I want mainstream. ”
I also want mainstream. So, I look forward to a future where live theater can be broadcasted on the web regularly, where live performances challenge our concepts of space and time, and where performers in different time zones perform side by side and in sync.
Stay tuned….There’s more to come!
Jerome A. Parker is a playwright and lyricist from NYC. His play with music, SUITES FOR SAD MEN, had a staged reading this June with Mixed Phoenix Theater Company. This fall he is one of the featured US artists in the TIME WAVE FESTIVAL produced by LoNyLa.com.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.