Thursday, September 17, 2020

‘The Homes We Build’ Questions Our Notion of Family (Review)

Twin Alchemy’s LARP for two explores love and life-long commitment

I have already forgotten the innocent sweetness of “playing house” in kindergarten. By using tree leaves as “money” to pay for the “groceries,” “baking” sand cakes and decorating them with dandelions, and tucking “kids” to sleep under the tall elm that served as a bedroom in our imaginary house, we did everything we saw adults do and strove to recreate our own perfect nuclear family.

In some sense, The Homes We Build by Austin-based Twin Alchemy Collective invites its participants to revisit this childhood activity, only with all the cultural and experiential baggage we’ve acquired as adults. This interactive, participatory experience is a role-playing game in which two people relive a 60-year relationship over the duration of four hours. They can be themselves or create characters, using a questionnaire that the creators of the experience—Katie Green, Sean Moran, and Michael Rau—have included in the orientation package.

The Homes We Build starts with the orientation package, a long and thoroughly constructed PDF, which is emailed to the participants in advance. I would like to emphasize how well it is designed, as it made me feel safe and cared for for the duration of the entire journey. It covers every question I could think of, starting with props that will be needed (nothing extravagant), safety and consent guidelines, worksheets for creating characters from scratch, and ending with a questionnaire to facilitate safe off-boarding and reflection on what happened. The experience itself is self-guided and there is an MP3 file that comes with the bundle. It can be completed in one session or multiple sessions.

For those who would like to clarify something or generally receive the information better aurally, there is a Zoom meeting preceding the experience. Sean Moran and Michael Rau go over the orientation file and answer participants’ questions. Attendance is optional; however, it is helpful in terms of highlighting the importance of details that can be missed in a quick skim of the initial document. Seeing two of the three authors of The Homes We Build on the screen also created an additional level of trust, and trust is key in LARP. You have to trust the other person enough to go through such an intimate experience and for The Homes We Build you have to be physically in the same space. Luckily, I didn’t have to search long in my quarantine bubble before I was able to enlist my friend Natalia to play my other half. So, armed with a coin, a rolled-up sock, a trashcan, and a few other props, we ventured into a new life as “Chris” and “Nora” by pressing “play” on the audio player.

A placid male voice comes in after the sound of a meditation chime. The narrator acts as a sort of director, describing various situations, voicing the thoughts of our characters, and giving prompts for improvisation. He also tells us how much time we have for a scene. The Homes We Build consists of a couple dozen of vignettes, each a glimpse into the lives of two people in a romantic relationship. The journey together appropriately starts with the first date, the scene to which the longest period of time is allocated. Understandable, since both of us need not only to find out everything we want to know about the other person, but also to find out who our characters are and slip into a new skin. The awkwardness of the first date layers perfectly on the awkwardness of the beginning of the LARP. But you would be surprised how quickly the transition to a full relationship happens. By the end of the 25-minute “snapshot” of our first meeting, I could literally feel the butterflies in the stomach of my character, Nora, who was falling for her new guy.

Some prompts are only meant for one pair of our ears and we have to toss a coin to determine who will possess information that the other one doesn’t have. I found these moments in The Homes We Build to be the most fruitful in terms of improvising a scene together. There was one vignette where I was offered a choice of three situations that lead my character into a certain state of mind. That narrative fork felt like a relief after being told what is happening to me by the experience. As much as my character wanted control over her life, I, as a player, wanted to take some authorial control and to challenge the character, to build her arc as well as as embody her reactions. As the player, I was given a chance to be creative with how the story unfolds. But as a character, I got to make my own decisions ( right or wrong) and not just react to the circumstances that were handed over to me by the almighty “playwright.” I wish there were more instances like this, yet, there were limitations to that creative license.

The experience of going through The Homes We Build is likely to be unique to every twosome of players. (I also enjoyed how Twin Alchemy Collective incorporated physical touch into the experience but don’t want to give away any spoilers.) Despite the pre-existing script, we each bring our own baggage and fantasies to the experience, which might bring forth different aspects of it. Along the way come topics of trust, responsibility, commitment, caregiving, and death.Going through scenes indicating relationship milestones of various significance and scale evoked a lot of emotions in me. Living through happy occasions, trying times, and everyday moments together mostly felt very real but, occasionally, it was puzzling and pushed me out of the experience.

It felt like the characters that we had created, an asexual trans male and a cisgender female, were shoe-horned into the paradigm of a heteronormative relationship. The experience’s creators didn’t set limits on who we dreamed up but the scenarios they gave us didn’t really take gender and sexual fluidity into account. We might be discussing how the institute of marriage means very little to us, and then, in the next scene, we would be asked to say our wedding vows by the LARP. We could be talking about focusing on our careers for a while and not having kids, and then next prompt joyously announces that we are pregnant (or had gotten a green light on adoption). For myself and my friend, in order to keep up with the development of the story that somebody had already pre-written for us, we had to really stretch our imaginations. Spoiler: that’s how we ended up with going parachute jumping instead of a wedding and an adopted son who was practically left on our stoop. As my LARP partner noticed, “Sometimes things just happen.”

But both my character and I were outraged by how control over one’s body and personal life can get snatched from you in an experience like this, especially for non-conforming subjects. This might be read simultaneously as both the flaw of the experience (I felt like I am being forced to do something I don’t want to do) and its biggest success (in a very dramatic way, I faced the pressure marginalized others feel in real life). Learning not only about yourself, but also getting closer to understanding the experience of the “other” is precious.

After all, isn’t that what art is about?

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on 9.11.10)



Friday, July 31, 2020

‘The Delegation’ Reminds Us of the Power of the People (Review)

Coney puts Russians and Brits into a virtual hotel for a diplomatic treaty 


“I wanna be in the room where it happens.” 


This is a sentiment expressed by the character of Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton but is also a desire familiar to many people. But what if there is no single room where a small group of powerful people determines the fate of the world? What if there are, in fact, many rooms in which decisions are made daily and it’s the summation of them that constitutes an outcome?     




The Delegation, an interactive virtual experience by the British company Coney, looks into the power distribution of pandemic capitalism on the international arena. To do that, the director Tassos Stevens has created a virtual hotel, “Hotel Zajets,” where he acts as a concierge/moderator during a convening of two diplomatic delegations. The audience members (numbering a little over 30 participants on the day I attended) are assembled into delegations of two countries, Russia and the UK. The experience was a part of the International Summer Festival of Art’s The Access Point, a platform for site-specific and immersive work taking place in Russia and all over the world, online. As an attendee of this festival, I find myself as part of the  Russian delegation.


We, the delegates, are encouraged to “check-in” via the hotel’s web site before our scheduled Zoom meeting. Among other things, I am asked to select a room number, think of my favorite word in my mother tongue, and choose a song to represent my country. The songs will be played later during time set aside for socializing and our  favorite words will be offered as a prompt to strike up conversation during  more intimate hangouts at the virtual bar.          


Although the Zoom-based Hotel Zajets has no depiction of its interiors, its bare-bones design provides the delegates with all the expected facilities. On Zoom, there is a common space for official business, breakout rooms for deliberations, and the hotel bar for more intimate gatherings. These “quarters” are regulated by the moderators of the experience and the participants are simply moved from one room to the other at the appropriate time. In addition to Zoom, there are some parts of the hotel which the participants can use freely, namely the Conference Center hosted on a separate web-based platform with a mysterious Diamond suite guarded by a passcode. In addition to these tools, there are a couple of Google Docs to which the participants can contribute and a WhatsApp channel for those who seek an alternative way to communicate. And simultaneous audio translation to both Russian and English is available during the official program to all. 


The imaginary grounds of the game property are vast and the program is packed. We have “three days and nights”-worth of activities (which comes to nearly two and a half hours in real-time). The main agenda of each of the three days is to divide a certain amount of points between the two countries. Each delegation is split in two parts, North and South, for working out the best strategy for each round and over the long run. Every day after the strategizing session, Russia North meets with the UK North to negotiate, as do their Southern colleagues. At the final stage, everybody comes together and, after building up suspense, the score is announced.        


Although the main agenda of this game appears to be that of diplomacy, dividing an arbitrary number of points seems suspiciously superficial to me right away, especially without any correlation with the real world. The moderator of our group assures us that these are just points, and, if we wish, we can assign them some meaning. But with such an oblique set of instructions, how can you not become suspicious of your fellow delegates, or the representatives from the UK, or even the conference organizers? The seemingly transparent design of the game screams of conspiracy to me. 


Even when I am left alone in my “hotel” room every night, I can’t shake off my paranoia. After each day of lectures, deliberations, and mingling, the delegates are offered to shut the door to their room by turning off their camera; we each listen to an audio track in solitude. These mini contemplative sessions are a nice counterbalance to the highly interactive and occasionally intense main body of the experience. The recordings are also used to reinforce the suspicion and to pour some oil on the flames of secrecy. You are alone in your room. Or are you? What will you do if somebody tries to reach out?    


There are also informal interactions at the hotel bar in small groups of three or four  people every evening. We receive prompts for these sessions, some quite innocent sounding (our favorite words in our languages), some potentially heated (opinions on how your respective governments are managing the pandemic). Depending on who is in the room, these icebreaking chats  can be very awkward or heartfelt, just like in real life. The synchronous live language interpretation that is provided during the official events of the day is absent here, so the delegates are left to figure out the language barrier on their own. I enjoyed these pockets of total improvisation in the otherwise structured game. The participants were free to continue talking about work, use the given prompts, or just talk about whatever they want. 


(A few minor spoilers follow.)


As we soon find out, the game itself allows for some radical creativity coming from the participants, if that’s what your delegation chooses to explore. I won’t give away any spoilers or go much deeper into any detail, but towards the third round of dividing points my group (Russia North) decides that we are through with the meaningless activity of dividing points, and propose to our British colleagues (UK North) an action of solidarity with those who are repressed by our governments. It might sound like an idea coming out of the blue in my retelling of it, but there is a point in the experience where the program takes a sharp political turn. 


Soon, nearly everybody else joins in and the points are forgotten. We are reminded that our actions in the world of the game might have consequences in our lives, and it’s up to us to make it happen. Unfortunately, the big reveal in The Delegation lands a little flat because of our political activism and only confirms the same conclusion that we the participants came to collectively: that power is distributed into many hands and it’s up to us to use it for the right cause. Rather than speculating about some room where all decisions are being made by others, we should take charge and seek to make “the room where it happens” our own.         


(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on 7/31/20)                                        

Thursday, June 25, 2020

'To My Distant Love’ Serenades Us Over the Phone (Review)

A most intimate opera invites you to fall in love from afar

NYC’s On Site Opera has been challenging the proscenium setting, traditionally associated with this art, since 2012. The company has produced site-specific work at the Bronx Zoo, the Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, among other unexpected venues. In their new remote production of To My Distant Love, a one-on-one live telephone experience, the audience member is invited to choose their own setting. Where would you take a call from your long-distance beloved? In your favorite armchair by the window, at your desk, or maybe during a walk? Making this decision already feels like an act of co-creating the piece, especially since this responsibility is bestowed upon you from the company whose entire artistic premise is to base the production on a specific location. 


Inspired by making the creative choice of the location for To My Distant Love, I head to the local park. I sit on a bench, allowing the sounds and smells of the environment to sink in. I pull out my phone and re-read two letters from my beloved, one sent to me the day before, the other one, two hours before the scheduled call. The letters are brief but full of tenderness and longing. They include the English translations of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte (“to the distant beloved”) song cycle. I read the translated poetry of Alois Isidor Jeitteles once more to tune into the feelings of anxious anticipation of reuniting with a loved one. The first couplet reads:               

I sit on the hill, gazing 
Out into the misty blue land,
Toward the distant fields, seeking the place
Where I first saw you, my beloved.

I lift my gaze towards the Manhattan skyline, made to look like an impressionist painting by blue haze. Living in New Jersey, I haven’t been to my favorite city in nearly three months and can fully relate to the yearning of a separated lover. As I admire the city, so seemingly distant but so close to my heart, my phone rings. 

“Darling, is that really you?” says the voice on the other end. 

A brief dialogue follows in which I improvise my replies about how much I miss seeing my beloved. The interaction feels effortless thanks to the warmth radiated by Jennifer Zetlan’s voice. But I can feel that my beloved is anxious to share her songs with me, which she says she wrote to keep me company while we are apart, and we move to music after a short prelude.  

Depending on the date and time of your personal performance, you might be connected with Jennifer Zetlan, soprano, or Mario Diaz-Moresco, baritone. David Shimoni and Spencer Myer, respectively, play the piano. Six songs of the cycle are sung in the original German and follow each other in a seamless flow. A sweet monologue in English (by Monet Hurst-Mendoza) reminiscing on our anniversary celebration is added to reinforce the personal connection to the songs.  

Unfortunately, the singing, the most anticipated part of this 20-minute experience, was mostly disappointing. And not for a lack of talent by the performer. It quickly became apparent to me how unfitting phone technology is at carrying musical nuances. I made sure to use noise-canceling headphones and we tested the connection during our dialogue in the beginning, and everything worked just fine. But as soon as we transitioned to music, the connection started lagging. It sounded to me like as the singer got farther away from the microphone her voice became a bit robotic, distorted by the phone and the acoustics of the space she was in, kind of like when you are talking to somebody in speaker mode. The specific qualities of the sound over the phone I perceived as normal during the dialogue felt disturbing during the musical part. 

The digital format of our new virtual theatre is especially cruel to music-based live performances, twisting and distorting beautiful voices and virtuosic instrument playing. Luckily, the premise of To My Distant Love gave me firm ground to stand upon and still enjoy the performance. After all, my beloved was calling me on the phone and I could clearly hear her giving her best to serenade me. I closed my eyes and let myself be taken by the songs, no matter the imperfect audio quality. 

To My Distant Love is grand and intimate at once, much like love itself. There is something spectacular in combining the monumental sound of opera singing with the intimacy of a phone call. I only wish the technology would cooperate.   

(This review was published on NoProscenium on June 24th)  

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Review: "The Corona Variations" Mimics Real Life Too Closely

The set of short plays amplifies frustrations of the present moment

When art gets too close to real life, it becomes a bit unsettling. This was my main insight after my encounter with The Corona Variations, a phone experience produced by the Toronto-based Convergence Theatre. The piece consists of six short (about 10 minutes each) “phone plays,” delivered to one audience member, or one household, over the course of one evening, one every half an hour. In some of them, you eavesdrop on other people’s phone conversations. In others, you participate by reading from a script (which is sent in advance). 


Among the assorted vignettes: the ways high school students navigate social life while self-isolating; a blind phone date; a secret affair; a broken marriage; and a sisterly squabble. The Corona Variations tries its best to counterbalance the emotionally loaded scenes with comedic moments, but a thick cloud of melancholy hangs heavily over even the most cheerful jokes. Some of the characters are loosely connected between the plays, but the real connection between all of them is the mutual experience of being stuck in one’s home at the moment and in the tiring uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The interactive parts of The Corona Variations are designed with a reserved audience member in mind, meaning that the improvisation is minimal; for the most part, I just listened or read my dialogue as written from the provided script. What would normally be perceived as a relief (I rarely enjoy the spotlight) felt like a cruel limitation to me and sent me further down a dismal spiral. Some of the other remote experiences that I have done lately have shown how magical and intimate “one-on-one”s over the phone can be. Reading the words that didn’t resonate with me while being not in character felt more like lying.       

My first conversation is with Jean, a 72-year-old woman who lives alone. By the time I picked up the phone, she had already spent about three hours on hold for a “Tele-Therapy” hotline and is now relying on me, a “specialist” who is supposedly equipped to provide an express fix-up. I have the script for the conversation in hand, and, unwilling to “break” the experience, I proceed with reading the damn lines, trying to convey as much compassion with my voice as I can. Intellectually, I know I’m talking to an actress on the other end. But somehow it doesn’t make the tough conversation easier. 

And, in the end, I don’t think my effort makes any difference and I was left confused about what this short play is supposed to evoke. How Jean and (other single elderly people like her) are able to find a moment of bliss in baking and watching funny videos? Pity for the mental health practitioners who are experiencing an immense work overload and have to turn to pre-written scripts in order to accommodate as many people as possible during shortened sessions? It is easier to shake off the distress during the plays that keep the fourth wall up, but less so with the ones where I get to play a part. And the situations in which I find myself during The Corona Variations are painfully close to real life. And it makes me angry that—even in the world of fiction—I feel that I am unable to make a difference. 

I also realize that the 20-minute intermissions between phone calls contributes greatly to my dissatisfaction with this experience. Left with no guidance on how to spend the in-between time, and feeling the familiar pressure of being “productive” while waiting, I busy myself with daily tasks. I read the NY Times’ updates on the lockdown. I write to my sister-in-law with condolences for a friend she lost to COVID-19. I get a text from a friend about her unsatisfactory online date. I go to the kitchen to make some tea and hear my mother-in-law on the phone with her lover, who was about to sneak out of his marital house. I feel like my life could be this show. Anybody’s life can, these days. 

One’s inner state can affect the perception of artwork greatly. It is true especially now when we can’t escape our life circumstances, housing situations, and shifting moods. In real life, I am unable to contact my elderly friend who lives alone; this fact couldn’t not affect my interaction with Jean. And if normally I am able to process parallels like this internally and not drag my entire self into my reviews, I found it especially challenging with The Corona Variations. Nothing “horrible” happens in these plays, but their close proximity to the reality around me, the structure that prompts the “productive” waiting and limitations in my agency (save for one scene) makes the overall experience disconcerting.    

I would be happy to hear that somebody else’s experience with The Corona Variations is uplifting and reassuring. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the experience, true. But it is not enough to rescue me from the vast darkness that our world feels like by my last phone call. It’s great that Convergence Theatre decided to take a stab at a timely topic and engaged with their audiences despite the social distancing limitations. However, the company missed the mark in both the format and the tone. They say misery loves company, but, evidently, it’s not enough to commiserate together. My hope is that we can be more mindful of what kind of “company” we provide others—both in making art and in our everyday interactions.   

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on May 26)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: ‘The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries’ Uncovers a Sense of Wonder

A serial phone adventure made about, and for, a single person: you

A while ago on a subway, I saw an ad for personalized children’s books that insert a child’s name into the narrative to make a kid the main character of the story he or she reads. How in tune with the times where experience design becomes increasingly personalized, I thought. But also, how cool that must feel to be the main character of a fairy tale that somebody wrote for and about you! I kind of felt like a kid reading one of those books during the week that The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries was unfolding: excited, surprised, overjoyed. 

Sebastien “Inspector” Heins. Photo by Dasha Peregoudova

Produced by Outside the March, Toronto-based immersive theatre company, this highly personalized and improvised adventure is a series of daily phone calls, each about 10 minutes long. A personal mundane mystery that you submit at the beginning of the experience is investigated by the Ministry and your job is to provide honest information when called upon. But what mundane mystery to choose? 

Why is my unemployment status pending? Will I lose all of my summer gigs? When will I be able to see my family? Those are just some of the mysteries on the tip of my tongue, but looking through the FAQ (which is hilarious to read by itself), I got the impression that The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries wouldn’t be interested in any of these. Socks missing their partner wouldn’t work either, the company explicitly said that the Ministry is “socked out” on their FAQ. What can it be then? My gaze turned to two pots of soil on my window sill with sprouts in them. You see, I planted hot pepper seeds recently but only in one of them. The other one was empty but now has a mystery plant growing in it. Bingo! And so the "The Case of the Adjacent Hot Peppers" was opened.              

On Monday, I received a phone call from Inspector Curry (Shannon Currie) assigned to my case, a bubbly and excitable woman, in whose company I felt at ease right away. She casually asked me about my papers, my household, and my lifestyle while collecting the information regarding my case and hence the material for my personalized adventure. From that initial conversation and a follow-up interview, characters sprung up that were so amusing and hilarious that it was hard to control my laughter during the daily calls. I eagerly waited for my call at 6:30pm every day with great anticipation, having no idea who would be on the line and what new twist the case of the adjacent peppers might take!

On Tuesday, Tomas Green (Colin Doyle) called me in great secrecy to share that something similar happened to him; a cucumber vine was growing in his English ivy plant. He struck me as an honest, somewhat shy, and curious person, so I had no problem sharing my deepest thoughts about flora with him. After a 10-minute hearty conversation, we decided that some sort of hopping seed conspiracy is going on and we just happened to be hosts for some of the rebellious plants. The next day a woman (Sheri Godda) called from a company that manufactures and delivers fertilizer. With the dexterity of a skilled salesperson, she got my story and my stance on the hopping seed theory, only to eventually reveal herself as Rose Pip, a VP of marketing and Brand Awareness of the Federation of Seeds and Seed Planters and to scold me for spreading dirty rumors! Our entire conversation was a seesaw of hostility, flattery, threats, and genuine respect, all very stimulating, I must note. 

Over the next three days, I chatted more with Inspector Curry as the case turned suspenseful and mysterious. I also encountered the most bizarre and grotesque character, Dr. Vladislav Luget (Jonathan Shaboo), the head chemist from the Little Squirrel Chocolate labs (earlier that week, in the conversation with Inspector Curry I reported Little Squirrel to be the last chocolate I ate). In his heavy Russian accent, he conveyed to me that, as part of an aggressive marketing campaign, a small dose of an addictive hallucinogen had been added to the chocolate, which made people see visions of tiny plants and sometimes tiny squirrels. As an apology for the inconvenience, the company was offering a three-month supply of Little Squirrel chocolates. With hallucinogens in them, of course. At this point, I was practically rolling on the floor laughing.                 

The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries is one of a few experiences where spoilers are nearly impossible since it is tailored to the circumstances of each participant, so don’t worry that the detailed account of my case will ruin your own journey. However, I will hold on to the finale, but will just mention that the ending was as hilarious and satisfying as the rest of the mystery. Did it really explain how a single sprout got into a pot where nothing was planted? Not quite. But it hardly matters anymore. More importantly, I was able to get a break from my “real life” worries and to live in a fantasy where anything is possible.           

Every minute of The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries was engaging and every call was a surprise. All the actors were very responsive to my ideas and improvised wonderfully, no matter how tricky my questions were. Using accents as comical props, the cast created a world where I couldn’t be sure what was true and what was just a game of imagination. I felt like the star of my own fairytale detective story. It was magical to see how the tiniest, most mundane details of my life were re-shuffled and made into an exciting narrative of mystery, romance, and hallucinogenic Russian candy.     
_____________

(This review was published on noproscenium.com)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: ‘The Girl On The Phone’ Gives Players The Chance to Be a Hero

An over-the-phone adventure by Sinking Ship Creations 

I often feel powerless during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides the passive and protective measures I take, there is not much else I can do. It feels like the entire world is standing still, anxiously waiting for what each new day will bring. Luckily, we have modern technology and ancient techniques of storytelling as well as restless creative minds to combine the two. Today, especially, I am thrilled to see immersive theatre finding new ways to connect to audiences: to entertain, to challenge, to comfort, and to empower. One of those on the front lines of digital theatre in times of “Corona” is Sinking Ship Creations, who are currently producing three new over-the-phone adventures.            


The Girl On The Phone, created by Sinking Ship co-producer and LARP writer, Betsy Isaacson (who you may know from Escape from Marseilles) is not heavy on roleplaying; in this one-on-one remote experience, I am basically myself. At the pre-arranged start time, I receive a badly mistyped text mistyped (there is clearly no autocorrect on this phone) asking me for help. Irene, the girl on the other end, and I don’t know each other. But she’s happened to find a phone in the place of her entrapment and it has my number on it. She is afraid to contact the authorities because she was kidnapped by the corrupted police of Caracas, or some people dressed as the police. But I found out all of this information later, over the course of our 66-minute encounter. First, we have to get her out of her handcuffs. Or should I first make sure she is who she says she is? 

My head is spinning as Irene is trying to type messages to me with her hands handcuffed. Every pause is filled with tension as, from what I understand, she could be caught at any minute of our dangerous journey. There are no blinking dots to indicate that somebody is typing on the other end and no sign of my last message being received. Every line of interaction can potentially become the last time I hear from Irene, so I have to be quick on my feet. I feel as if I have a real thriller on my fingertips. The timing of the texts is very well-paced, as the pregnant pauses let my imagination run wild. Did she make it? Did my plan work? I am on the edge of my seat, nervously staring at my phone.      

When Irene finally has a chance to call me, I hear the voice of a sweet young girl, scared out of her mind. I don’t blame her. Jennifer Suter, who portrays Irene, is incredibly convincing. The sound design, created by the actress herself, is spot on. From the kind of long-distance-call effect provided by old cell phones to the sounds of the surroundings, the picture of what is going on on the other end is quite vivid. Background noises make picturing locations easy and help to envelop me in the story, it definitely added a realistic flair to the production. 

I will refrain from revealing any more of our adventure to avoid spoiling your experience with The Girl on the Phone. It is possible that your story will take a different course depending on your actions. Like with any interactive experience, a lot depends on your involvement. The Girl On The Phone is engaging and thrilling. It’s easy to fall into the storyworld thanks to Suter’s skillful and barely noticeable “back leading,” a skill of pulling the participant deep into the action which appears on the surface as participant’s initiative but is actually scripted story. 

For me, The Girl On The Phone was an equally nerve-racking and heartfelt journey. Without fully putting on the mask of a fictional character, I still had to perform multiple roles: that of a crisis specialist, negotiator, interpreter, navigator, and, lastly, friend. In a way, it felt like Irene and I  became friends over the course of the hour we spent communicating. Overcoming a struggle together tends to bring people closer together, and shows like The Girl On The Phone are exactly what the world needs right now.                                      

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on April 15th)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Review: “Play In Your Bathtub” and “Life on Earth”: the immersive and digital theatre in the time of social distancing.

“Play In Your Bathtub” and “Life on Earth”: the immersive and digital theatre in the time of social distancing. 


Like many of us during the COVID-19 quarantine, I am nostalgic for the times when we could go to the theater and socialize freely. But at the same time I am thrilled by the response of the artistic community: even under the challenging conditions of physical isolation theatre is being created and it finds its audience across many digital platforms. Take This is Not a Theatre Company, for instance. It has produced not one, but two shows meant to be enjoyed remotely: Play In Your Bathtub: An Immersive Audio Spa For Physical Distancing and Life on Earth. The New-York based company usually produces site-specific pieces and has taken their audiences to a cafe, Staten Island Ferry and a pool.    


This is Not a Theatre Company's production of "Play in Your Bathtub" is meant to be enjoyed from your bath in the comfort of your own home.
I vividly remember the first production of the company that I attended in 2017, Pool Play 2.0. It featured a collection of scenes, monologues, and dance numbers all centered around the topic of various bodies of water. The cast of seven performed in the middle of a large swimming pool, while the audience members sat on the edge, dangling their feet ankle-deep in the water. I am reminded of this moment of joyful public gathering as I am filling up the bathtub at home three years later in anticipation of the company’s new piece, Play In Your Bathtub. This show, unlike the Pool Play, is meant to be enjoyed in solitude, in a private bathtub (a bucket or any container for a footbath will also do). With public spaces being closed for the time being, producer and writer, Erin Mee, turns one’s bathroom into the location for her new site-specific project.    


Following the instructions from the email sent prior to the experience I gather the “props”: a cup of tea (can be wine or any beverage), a washcloth soaked in warm water and a candle. The list also calls for aromatherapy source, which might be a scented candle, bath oil or herbal brew which you prepare in advance. For that purpose, I picked up a few twigs of a pine tree which turned out to be the single greatest idea of the week. The pines provide a pleasant smell and fun haptic experience. Necessity is the mother of invention but so is boredom, if anything the quarantine taught me that much. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything on the list, this won’t affect engaging with the piece. The key factor is comfort, so whichever way you choose to immerse yourself in the water, it should feel pleasant and comfortable so you can fully relax your body.      


Play In Your Bathtub is an audio track that can be played from any device at any time. The date and a start time that you choose upon getting a pay-what-you-can ticket online is more of a suggestion, and I wish it was emphasized by the company. So don’t be discouraged if the offered times don’t work for you or if you are running late. Although the start time turned out to be nominal (hypothetical) I did like the idea of keeping an appointment with myself and entertained the fact that probably several people are doing exactly the same thing at that moment; getting into the tub and immersing themselves with the sounds of Play In Your Bathtub.   


The 25-minute experience features a collection of poetic monologues and interactive prompts. “Drink from the well of yourself to begin again” - whispers a female voice, followed by a gentle rustling of ice-cubes in a glass, something straight from an ASMR seance. Then it cuts to a woman offering me to give myself a head massage. In a similar manner, contemplative fragments that are meant to engage the participant intellectually and emotionally are mixed with the prompts to interact with the scene physically. I am invited to trace the patterns of the water with an index finger or the tiles with one’s thumbs. My favorite part was harmonizing along with the narrator, which gave me a strange sense of joy and liberation. I am not a singer and don’t even sing in the shower, so hearing my own voice reverberating against the tiled surfaces was an entirely new experience for me. 


Like other productions by This is Not a Theatre Company, Play In Your Bathtub is a busy eclectic collage, switching between the genres and moods in a heartbeat. Like a curious, restless child, Erin Mee invents one game after another and plunges in full-heartedly, only to forget about it altogether in a few minutes and jump on the next adventure. If I wasn’t familiar with the company’s work, I might have felt disoriented, overloaded and confused. Treating the experience as a game and having a little fun enhances it. After all the world “Play” in it stands for both dramatic work and activity for enjoyment and recreation.    


I’ve learned that the best way to approach This is Not a Theatre Company’s productions is to treat them as a chocolate sampler: you might not love every single piece but you will have a unique opportunity to try a bunch of different flavors and maybe discover something that will stick with you. For me, it is harmonizing in my full voice in the bathroom and playing with pine twigs. Savoring each moment and experimenting with daily rituals like bathing might open new horizons of perception and re-introduce yourself to you. Play In Your Bathtub turns the limitations of quarantine into a precious gift. It reminds us that self-care, curiosity, and playfulness are more important now than ever before and that we are only limited by our imagination. 

Life on Earth took place entirely over Discord. A screenshot of the live chat.
Another component of keeping sane during these trying times is to support each other. Hence the second show in the repertoire of This is Not a Theatre Company, Life on Earth, is dedicated to social life in the times of physical distancing. This adaptation of Charles’ Mee play, Heaven on Earth started at 8 pm on April 3rd and ended around 4:30 pm on April 5th. Over a hundred participants were tuning in from all over the world, including Argentina, India, Nepal, Turkey, and China.  


There is a Bot moderator, who starts and wraps up the sessions, occasionally throws in prompts and has the power to ban those who are not respectful of others. Early in the experience, Bot posts photos of ruins of ancient civilizations: Greek temple, Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and others. The set is concluded with a photo of people wearing surgical masks cramped in what appears to be a shelter. Bot quotes from Heaven on Earth:      


the world has come to an end--
and yet:
life goes on;


This sets up the tone for the dialogue on the public forum, dedicated to “Earth Matters”. Videos of different artists performing at home are organized in accordance with the original script and become a part of the live conversation. An inspirational video from Napoli of people singing in unison from their balconies is followed by sharing of exciting things that everybody saw lately, a picture of durian fruit and more vocal and dance performances recorded by the participants in their quarantine corners. At this point the moderation is minimal and there is a lot of confusion in the audience that came to see “the performance”. “Is anything not a performance ;)” - comments one of the participants.


The surreal, absurdist text of Charles Mee lends itself perfectly into the format of a chat-room. Life on Earth, the play that inspired our collective Discord journey proved to be so flexible enough to accommodate the participation of people who have no clue in what’s going on. A narrative within a narrative, Heaven on Earth is itself like a beautiful ruin, on which the vines of our personal experiences climb freely. At some point, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between a character in the play and a participant. Is an emoji of a woman in a red dress an homage to Heaven on Earth? Some fragments are direct quotes but they blend in so seamlessly in this multi-cultural dialogue that it’s impossible to tell where the original text ends and the improvisation begins. 


More dances, songs, and short videos of everyday activities like yoga or doing chores are added to the chat. Participants share encouraging quotes and comment on each other’s contributions. The rule of thumb that everybody adopted unanimously and without the enforcement from the outside is that you are not supposed to post while everybody is watching a new video offering. As somebody noted: “Less speaking and more listening might help us all understand the dramaturgical structure of the piece”, a good rule for life in general, I might add. Less speaking and more listening might help us understand each other better.       

Life on Earth has concluded but is available in its entirety on Discord, complete with a recipe for carrot cake, a tutorial on how to build a sheet fort and Charles’ Mee original text. To our disappointment or amusement, life today does resemble an absurdist play with a fatal twist. Life on Earth comes remarkably close to depicting reality, messy but, in the end, so beautiful. 

(This review was published on TheTheatreTimes.com on April 10th)