Skype: Can Theatre Go the Distance?

by Jody Christopherson

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Skype: Can Theatre Go the Distance?

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

It’s 6am on a Monday and I am making black tea in preparation for a rehearsal in thirty minutes. I’m still in my pajamas when my collaborator, Michael de Roos, arrives (at 12:30pm), lunch in hand. As I’m waking up we go over rewrites for the script we’ve been writing since January. I scratch my head only to discover bobby pins from the night before entwined in wilted flowers- a pink frosted carnation I must have missed while getting ready to sleep, now creating a rat’s nest on the side of my head. I drink my tea. The smell of flowers is grassy on my fingers. Earl Grey mixed with the happy sounds Michael makes as he recounts his afternoon spent at auditions, biking over canals, thinking of new music we won’t be able to play yet. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are working at all; that I am able to see him through the morning haze. For a moment his sunlight blinds me. I hear him say, “Wait- are you still wearing pajamas? It looks like you have a small rodent on your head.”  And for once I appreciate the shitty Skype pixel quality between New York and Amsterdam.

Last year, I was interviewing Erik Ehn at New Dramatists and he said something with regard to changing perception of what we consider to be theater spaces. “The theater’s of tomorrow will have beds and kitchen’s”.  We went on to talk about the act of communing, food being eaten at his rehearsals as well.  At the time I was in pre-production to stage a site specific haunting in my apartment, literally staging a play in my kitchen in which an actress baked. It was a vulnerable experience having an audience in my home. His statement struck me as not only re imagining location but the need to connect with audiences without pretense, in the places that we are most human.

Back to Amsterdam. The play I have been co-writing over Skype is about failure- the failure to continue making theater in a traditional space as Michael and I are on separate continents.  Traditional ways of reaching each other are no longer available, so we are making the most of what is available to us in order to reach an audience and each other.

The quality of the image varies and has brought up the question-when we are not allowed to see someone clearly, what do we connect to? After all, on Skype, what we’re actually seeing is very theatrical-essentially magic- a reconstructed transcoded stream of audio and visual files coming together to create a very convincing representation of the person on the other end of the call.

The thing that is really powerful about Skype, in addition to getting face time with someone at a distance, is the possibility of bringing theater experiences to audiences that might not otherwise be able to be reached. How many people have never seen a play but have watched a video on YouTube? If we told an audience member they were attending a theater piece with only a laptop and wifi connection, would they participate?

In PopUp Theateric’s “Long Distance Affair: Make Possible an Impossible Trip” that is exactly what Tamilla Woodard and Ana Margineanu did. Audience were invited into a hotel lobby to Skype with actors all over the world performing commissioned monologues. Skype itself became the theater, with the ability to breakdown and simultaneously maintain separation, a 4th wall of sorts. The intimacy of having a one on one call, with the inability to verbally respond to the work, made the audience, as well as the performers voyeurs. Which begged the question–who were the performers/was being watched–if both audience and actor are doing the watching? What do performers get from such a direct connection? How does the audience contribute to the outcome of the play? Because we can watch ourselves being watched, does this make some more reserved or is it more freeing to see ourselves as a part of the experience? Is place made from setting- a hotel lobby in this case (for the audience) and mostly bedrooms (for the actors) or from the medium (Skype) by which those settings are conveyed?

For Michael and I it has not been the place as much as the medium that has changed our work from presentationally theatrical to intimate. We have always made musical work influenced by personal stories, however, once we began using Skype we found that it was impossible to make music (Skype doesn’t quite allow for simultaneous sound transmittal). All that was left were the stories we’d tell and our conversations. We tried performing Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) but found that what felt most compelling was the struggle to communicate, maintain a relationship and the discussion about how to continue in a medium that could hide and expose us at the same time.

Jody Christopherson is a performer, writer. Her work as an actress has been seen at: The Kitchen, Lincoln Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Public Theater, PS122, the Humana Festival, Classic Stage Company, the Bushwick Starr, Bowery Poetry Club, Philadelphia Shakespeare, Nebraska Rep. Jody is a blogger for The Huffington Post and the editor and creator of New York Theatre Review, an indie media source for indie theater. Currently, Jody is the singer/lyricst composer for the theatrical band Greencard Wedding with Dutch actor/ musician Michael de Roos. Their play THE SKYPE SHOW will receive its American premiere this August in the NYFringe Festival.