Digital Acting in A Killing Game

by Melanie Harker

in National Conference

Post image for Digital Acting in A Killing Game

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Theatre | Technology} blog salon, curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton.)

When dog & pony dc director Colin K. Bills declared that we were planning to incorporate a Twitter component that would require active tweeting, I was on board. The concept was easy enough: have the characters converse with each other, and with the audience, throughout the course of the performance in reaction to what was happening on stage…via Twitter.

Influenced by the ways media (television, radio, Twitter) delivers information during times of crisis and causes a cacophony of voices to rise up, we constructed an online universe with just enough characters to create the aforementioned cacophony: a Twitter handle for each of the individual “game piece” or avatar characters (Mister Blue, Mister Orange, Mister Brown, Miss Green, Miss Purple, Miss Pink); Miss Black who remained mute and elusive throughout the show; the fictitious Big-Brother-esque Health Commission; the kooky game show side-kick with a winning smile, Sean-O.

Then, what? Twitter is an inherently performative space. When you only have 140 characters to encapsulate your ideas/thoughts/opinions, the pressure to “make each character count” mounts. People’s personalities become hyper-intensified as the number of symbols you have to express yourself shrinks. Twitter is a personality signal-booster in this way; it’s paved the way for users, like comedians, to easily brand themselves and spread their influence across the internet, (e.g. @kristenschaaled or @ronfunches or @meganamram). I needed to determine, “When Miss Green tweets, what does she say? Would she have any catch-phrases? Any regular sign-offs?”

I kept my ears open in rehearsal. I carefully watched as the actors interacted with one another, both in and out of character, and made note of what words and phrases they came back to. This initial research funneled into a “Twitter Script,” which was deployed in A Killing Game’s only non-live dialogue scene, where characters reacted to a flood of radio broadcasts about a deadly disease sweeping their community.

A lot of the other content I fell upon while performing each of these characters on Twitter turned into “informed dramaturgical improv.” I knew these actors and their characters inside and out by virtue of being through the rehearsal process; to make them come alive in the digital field I simply focused their characters… in 140 characters. If Miss Purple had a moment of flirtation with Sean-O, I would let that echo on the twitterverse. If members of the Pink Team during the game show were excited about the game, Miss Pink’s tomboyish intensity would be reflected digitally.

Once the premiere of A Killing Game was completed and we were in the preparatory stages for our second run, it was determined that the social media component would be operated by another ensemble member (phew!). This allowed for even more interaction, as we added a scene that involved texting and tweeting to yet another omniscient persona, the People’s Premiere Citizen’s News Network (PPCNN) who asked the audience to “make up the news” every night. This role, which we now describe as the Social Media Conductor,  is as much a character in the production as any of the live actors on stage, serving as their digital mouthpiece and avatar to the twitterverse.

Preparing for our run at the Cleveland Public Theater in April was the very first time we had to train someone outside of the company, unfamiliar with the development of the production (and more importantly, the character’s personalities), how to run social media. The on-boarding process was intense; a traditional “calling script” was developed and passed along, along with information on the tone and major character traits of each handle, and an exhaustive list of passwords and email addresses for each account. It was incredibly exciting to not only introduce someone to the craziness that is A Killing Game, but to also see them make new discoveries about the Twitter component in rehearsal as well as in performance, and see their translation of that in their unique digital acting style. The next logical step of course for us was to finally acknowledge the Social Media Conductor as not just an integral member of the team, but a member of the cast. As of our run at Cleveland Public Theatre this past April, Jenn Larsen became our first properly billed SMC. As we continue to teach others the many-headed beast that is Social Media Conducting, the better, more cohesive, and more exciting a component to the show it becomes.

See it for yourself: check out how the story of A Killing Game has unfolded online.


Melanie Harker is a Conspirator with dog & pony dc (d&pdc) and the Education Manager at Washington Improv Theater (WIT). By day, Melanie oversees WIT’s classes program and spreads the joy of improv throughout the District. By night, Melanie devises and supports audience integrated theatre with d&pdc. Melanie can also be seen alongside engagement strategist Rachel Grossman teaching practical workshops on audience engagement to artists and administrators around the country. She was brought to Washington, DC by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to work in their innovative Connectivity department, supporting and leading several audience engagement projects during their 32nd season. Melanie graduated from Susquehanna University summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in theatre and a minor in anthropology.