This past summer, my colleague Kyle Haden and I led a small “think tank” at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama aimed at exploring the landscape of live performance in the age of Covid-19. The research questions we posed to the student participants in the course were relatively straightforward: what’s “out there” in the world of remote and digital live performance, what’s working well, why does it work well when it does, and what tools and techniques need to be mastered in order to make compelling and captivating live performance for remote or socially distanced performers and audiences?
After viewing dozens of online performances and experiments, our students compiled a digital “white paper” of the results of their research, which ranged from recommendations regarding content and rehearsal strategies to a deep dive into available recording and streaming platforms to an imagined “Covid” season for many of our local theaters. You’re welcome to view the results of their work, but the TL;DR take-home of our collective survey of the summer landscape was something that will now likely seem all too obvious: the most successful live-streamed (or pre-recorded and streamed) projects had two things in common. First, they were delivered in relatively short segments (thirty minutes was the sweet spot; forty-five the outer limit). And second, they achieved a logical and necessary integration between form and content; that is, the works that were most satisfying to experience were works that contained within their world an explanation as to why the audience member might be viewing them on a screen.
The example we all kept pointing to as the bar-setter was a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by Eleanor Bishop, a CMU Drama directing alum, and produced by the Auckland Theatre Company (and recently made available again in four 30-minute segments for viewing – which I highly recommend!) Back in the early summer, at a time when many theater companies and performers were attempting to replicate the experience of live theater by putting actors into dialogue with each other across Zoom boxes – and asking us viewers to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the characters were occupying the same physical space – Bishop’s adaptation accepted Zoom as a governing condition of the characters’ pandemic-bound lives, and forged Chekhovian comedy and pathos out of their (and our) current given circumstances. What made Bishop’s reboot compelling was that the video capture of live dialogue and action made sense in the world of the play; it was not haunted, as so many online reproductions of plays have been, by the IRL theatrical conditions we can no longer enjoy.
With its new production of Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, the collaborative team at Quantum Theatre has crafted a similarly successful integration of form and content. The setting for the play is a Moscow hotel room where Andrew (Chris Cattell) – a fictionalized Edward Snowden – has taken refuge after he has released damaging information showing that the US government has been spying on its own citizens. Two mysterious agents, who may or may not belong to an organization affiliated with a Julian Assange-esque man that Andrew seeks to be connected with, visit his room: a British Woman (played by Lydia Gibson), and an American Man (played by Wali Jamal). The hotel room (designed with a keen eye for Soviet-holdover detail by Kelsey Garrett) bristles with hidden Russian surveillance cameras that provide us with multiple views into the cat-and-mouse game that these two play with Andrew as they try to recruit him to trust – and eventually join – them. As such, the answer to the question, “why are we watching this on a screen?” is clear and logical: because “we” are cast in the role of some nameless Russian agent monitoring what unfolds in this claustrophobic space.
This conceit works exceedingly well: it serves not only to ratchet up the tension of the play but also to lend it an aesthetically compelling and moody visual style (Hannah Kerman’s lighting design produces an effect that makes color seem like it’s almost black-and-white). Director Sam Turich uses both camera angle and actor movement to keep the visual field dynamic, and part of the fun of the production lies in playing the game of figuring out how he and production director Hank Bullington have managed to pull off the show’s technical tricks. I’ll confess that I steered more attention than I probably should have into trying to figure out a) whether the actors were in the same room together (they were: Gibson and Cattell are a couple in real life who can safely be in close proximity to each other, while Jamal maintains a safe social distance from his scene partners throughout), and b) where all of the hidden cameras are (I think I found about half).
The choice to set this play into a situation of surveillance also helped to add frisson to a script that does not fully congeal, at least not for me. Too much of the narrative suspense revolves around the withheld mystery of the two visitors’ identities and agendas, and some of the events (for example, a scene in which the Woman offers to “prove” that she’s trustworthy) require us to accept at face value that a man who could hack the US national security system is otherwise a hapless dupe.
Yet toward the end, when the Woman smugly observes that the information that Andrew has leaked to the American public has been met with a “big shrug,” the play’s sociopolitical stakes suddenly and strikingly rear into view. We’re reminded of Andrew’s real-life model, Edward Snowden; of the enormous (and in his mind heroic) personal sacrifice he made in his attempt to call attention to our government’s surveillance overreach; and of how rapidly outrage over that revelation seems to have faded from public consciousness.
Wild suggests in the end that our capacity for outrage and shock has been numbed by disinformation and distraction. The next two weeks may test that proposition. Let’s hope we don’t get there. Vote.