Parallel Universes

by Kay Matschullat

in National Conference

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

An author writes the text, a director maps the journey, a producer provides the needed funds, the creative process moves from staging to production, the audience is to be gathered and a couch fills center stage. Sound like a piece of theater?  It’s actually the characteristics of creating a piece of technology.

For the last year in the making of SCRIPTOPIA, an online platform to enhance script development, render readings paperless, and make re-writes available instantaneously, I have discovered that my lifetime of work in the theater suddenly and somewhat magically became a good preparation for treading into the territory of twenty-something t-shirt wearing males: the tech start-up world.

The writer of the code, the ‘developer’ as he/she is called in tech, turns out to be an auteur and tends to innovate, reflect, and sometimes respond emotionally in much the same way a playwright might. On his way to our launch event, our developer was so nervous about presenting his work to an audience, he followed too closely advice you hear in the theater; he fell and literally broke his leg! It’s a risk to write code just as it is a risk to write plays. Writing code, however, almost guarantees a good living while writing plays often seems to guarantee the opposite.  Scriptopia comes in part from my asking after 30 years of collaborating with wonderful writers, how can theater better serve our playwrights, supporting their work sufficiently to allow them to fulfill their potential on the boards rather than turning to other media?

15 months ago embarking on a challenge that would lead to many sleepless nights, I began designing and coding (in collaboration with a developer) an online application for script development.  Scriptopia is the result of a desire to make the rehearsal room more about art and less about lengthy pauses to jot down a change or incorporate new pages. An actress in rehearsal recently confirmed my observation that instant paperless distribution of changes preserves the artistic flow since an actor or director doesn’t have to come out of the left hemisphere of the brain and move to the right hemisphere to make sure the change is recorded correctly.  In her words, the task of writing down a new line is antithetical to the flow an actor.

Scriptopia has a ‘staging’ server where we rigorously and repeatedly test new features before migrating them to the ‘production’ server where our audience awaits us. Then, there is the couch center stage, specifically ‘COUCHdb’ the nom de plume of our data base from whence everything comes and goes. As goes realism in theater, the couch retains a central role in the life of any programmer and web developer.

Now that Scriptopia is 10,000 lines of code another surprise has made itself clear; the code constantly evolves. Instead, there is an evolving organic relationship between user and the code.  The user interacts with that code and changes it in the process. We should all know that as users we are players in the programming dance, like a rehearsal room where the text is influenced by everyone in that room. A line’s receiving (or not) a laugh from the audience directly leads to changes in the text.  On the day when Playbill ran an article about us, the server, in response to some user behavior, developed a hiccup (a hiccup only we saw on the backend but needed our attention).  The hiccup led us to new insight, a new very popular feature was born and we engaged a more responsive server!  This organic symbiosis carries with it a mystery and determines that one cannot necessarily anticipate every event but must respond within the moment with openness, much like good rehearsal practice. 

Like theater itself Scriptopia looks for inspiration in both the distant past and the near future. It occurs to me while I am rehearsing with Scriptopia that this is the way it was in the room with Shakespeare – the individual actor didn’t make the line changes himself; there were no binders, no paper, no pencils and the artist was free to create a character and tell a story.  Maybe that’s part of the process that created ‘his’ nearly perfect plays – fluidity was maintained and the company collaborated hands-free.   Like Shakespeare, Scriptopia also uses line numbers not page numbers which greatly eases the task of keeping the company in sync.

Theater artists are among the most committed group on earth. And it turns out, so are tech start-up geeks.  While theater artists reflect on the human condition and thereby try to change it for the better, responsible technical innovators hope to move the world forward through greater connectivity and efficiency.  In theater we can make aspects of technology our friend enhancing our connectivity and collaborative flow, allowing more plays to reach their zenith and more artists to fulfill their dreams.

Kay directs new plays and great repertory plays by Shakespeare, Brecht Aphra Behn and others, She has collaborated on premiers with world renowned writers Vaclav Havel, Derek Walcott and Ariel Dorfman. She originated CARSON MCCULLERS TALKS ABOUT LOVE, a music theater piece with composer Duncan Sheik and songwriter Suzanne Vega,.

She has worked at Williamstown Theater, Cleveland Playhouse, Boston Shakespeare and Rattlestick Theater among many others. In recent years she has been an artist-in -residence at CALARTS, SCAD, Dartmouth College and the Royal University of Arts in Phnom Penh. Currently, she is developing LOVE OF MEN FEROCIOUS with writer Joseph Merlo. She also directed the Other Stage new play series at WTF and the In The Raw program at Red Bull Theater.

She has conceived and now directs SCRIPTOPIA an online application that transforms play development making it more fluid, more fun and greener. Check it out at