The New Empty Space

Three ensembles in New York, Oakland, and San Francisco applauding works in progress online via Google+ Hangout.

What a week! Dare I say I spent the last seven days pioneering a new way of making theatre? I love living in the future!

Directors Lisa Szolovits, Wolfgang Wachalovsky and I met at Directors Lab West in May 2012. Having known each other a grand total of four days, we began to make plans to collaborate on a piece together, brainstorming around themes, stories, and new forms that would allow three directors to collaborate. This could have been a summer camp romance, a strong connection in a special, intense environment, followed by half-hearted promises to keep in touch. But since May, we met at least monthly via Google+ Hangout to keep talking about how we might make some theatre together. We researched residency programs and applied for a couple of small grants (which we didn’t get). We considered multiple scenarios for how to create a laboratory to test our ideas. We recruited some fantastically adventurous actors. And this week, we transformed our apartments into ad-hoc scenic designs, our laptops and iPhones into movie cameras, and the Internet into the new “Empty Space,” just waiting for someone to walk across it while someone else is watching to engage an act of theatre. (Peter Brook)

This week’s experiment sprang from questions about how three directors can collaborate on one piece; often directors are the only one of their kind in the rehearsal room, or else we’re working alongside other directors in a festival of short works, together but separate, under the curative eye of an artistic director. So one goal of the experiment was to see how we three could work together. We initially envisioned bringing Lisa and her team out from New York, and meeting up in the Bay Area with Wolfgang’s Oakland collaborators and my San Francisco ensemble, renting a theatre space and training together to develop an Exquisite Corpse methodology inspired by victorian parlor games in which players draw the head, body, and feet of a monster without being able to see what the others have drawn. Parisian Surrealists in the 1930s adopted different versions of the game using both images and language; their first word game yielded the phrase “the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine” (in French). Fast forward to May 2012, at the Directors Lab, where we wondered, what would it be like to devise a piece of theatre, only being able to see a few moments of what the others have created?

A lack of material and financial resources made us consider how we could keep working virtually, in our own cities, without springing for plane tickets or taking too much time off from our day jobs. We’ve been meeting online; why can’t we rehearse online? Why can’t we perform online? The experiment morphed to focus on the possibilities of live performance via Google+ Hangout, and within that frame, thinking about ways we could connect three pieces to feel like one whole. With such an ambitious form, we decided to make the content a fixed, known quantity; maybe working from the same source material would mean that the three pieces had the same “dramatic DNA.” We chose an episode of Doctor Who, and each of us claimed the beginning, middle, or end to translate onto our laptop screens in any way we wanted. Deliberately leaving style and tools to the discretion of each director, we ended up with three vastly different pieces to present at our mid-week showing. We shared techniques and called out strong images that could begin to tie the pieces together across our vastly different interpretations of the source material. Back in our individual ensembles, we rehearsed a second iteration of each piece, incorporating ideas from the pieces we’d seen at the first showing. To end the lab, we shared again, each piece making even more ambitious attempts to push the technology and find out what we can do.

We learned a lot this week about what Google+ Hangout can do, how to use different cameras and angles, black-and-white effects, strong POV choices, music and sound, chat functions, and even silly hats on Google Effects. We pulled together anything lying around that seemed useful, just like kids putting on a play in our back yards. Only now instead of grabbing a broom handle to stand in for a sword and pretending a treehouse was a castle, we grabbed an iPhone to stand in for a video camera and pretended my bathroom was a prison cell. We made some props. We put down spike marks on my kitchen floor where the laptop needed to be set up, and marked out where the actors could stand and still be in frame. I downloaded an app that made my webcam broadcast in black and white, and set up a laptop on the highest shelf of a cupboard, to look like a security camera feed. New tools plus old-school resourcefulness became a pretty powerful combination.

What’s next? There’s more to learn about how these pieces connect, and how our ensembles can connect within one larger work. There’s more to learn about how to interact with audiences over this medium. There’s definitely more to learn about glitch-reduction! Lisa and Wolfgang and I are regrouping this week to talk about a second laboratory and how to proceed with making a piece of theatre in this new form. In the meantime, I’m walking around totally jazzed about the possibilities and new techniques to be discovered and refined.

(and oh yeah, I start rehearsals for The Helen Project a week from tonight.)

A huge round of applause for my collaborators: directors Lisa Szolovits and Wolfgang Wachalovsky; actors Misti Rae Boettiger, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Adam Sussman in San Francisco; Maria Paz Alegre, Max Reuben, and Elly Smokler in New York; and Stephanie DeMott in Oakland. And a special thank you to our first-ever audience members Rebecca Longworth and Marilee Talkington, who tuned in on Sunday to our glitches and wild stabs in the digital darkness.

Better to be ignorant, to go into the future as into
a long tunnel, without ball of yarn or clear direction,
to tiptoe forward like any fool or saint or hero,
jumpy, full of second thoughts, and bravely unprepared.

Theseus within the Labyrinth by Stephen Dobyns

One Reply to “The New Empty Space”

Leave a Reply