(Photo of Ratnesh Dubey listening to Ferry Play by Emily Cordes. This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)
Smartphone plays are an emerging genre of theatre that take advantage of mobile technology to create site-specific audio-based theatrical experiences. I have just directed one for the Staten Island Ferry in New York City, called Ferry Play. In this case, you download an app to your smartphone (the app contains the audio clips, instructions, and the program), and ride the ferry. Act 1 goes from Manhattan to Staten Island, and Act 2 goes from Staten Island to Manhattan. As it turns out, Ferry Play has reached the kind of diverse audiences that other theaters dream about.
We didn’t set out to reach a diverse audience: I just wanted to direct a site-specific audio play on the ferry. I was interested in the relationship between a recording that never changes and a site that is constantly changing: At the beginning of the play, a teenager looks around and says to her family: “look at that creepy guy over there.” Every time an audience member actually looks, there will be someone different to see: if the audience member sees someone they perceive as creepy, then they share the same perception; if there is a guy who doesn’t seem creepy to the listener, then the listener might decide the teen is judgmental; if there is no one at all, we begin to wonder if she is imagining things, or if this is a game she plays with her family.
I was also interested in the relationship between the intimacy of someone speaking in your ear juxtaposed with the vastness of the New York Harbor. In Act 1, April speaks very quietly and intimately into our ears:
“I was watching you. I liked the way you were observing things. It’s so nice to see someone by themselves on this thing. So many people but no one to talk to. Because everyone is in groups. Or looking at things. Their laps. Their phones. Anything but each other. Most people don’t observe anymore.They look at things. But they look at them through little screens. Or they don’t look at all. They like to capture things on screens. Take pictures. I guess to prove you were somewhere. You really, really were somewhere. I just find – the more images we capture, the less we actually see. Maybe.”
She says this while we are looking out over the water, while the Statue of Liberty falls behind the boat.
Jessie Bear, who wrote the play, was interested in the constant presence of ghosts and memories. Several passages in the play cause the listener to wonder if they are overhearing conversation that is actually occurring in the present, or if they are remembering something someone said to them long ago – or if they are hearing voices of past riders that have remained on the ferry.
Both of us were interested in the characters that ride the ferry every day – and the plays you can overhear by listening to other people’s conversations. This exchange between two drunk men is based on a conversation Jessie and I overheard the first time we rode the ferry together:
MAN 1: We gotta stop drinking.
MAN 2: The fuck?
MAN 1: It’s fucking killing me. I think it’s killing me. 9/11 changed shit, man.
MAN 2: Oh don’t start that fuckin -
MAN 1: You wasn’t there. I’m so sick of this shit, man. I gotta stop drinking.
[He pops a beer and drinks]
MAN 2: You didn’t stop.
MAN 1: Hm?
MAN 2: You say you wanna stop you stop.
MAN 1: What?
MAN 2: Put down your beer.
MAN 1: Aw, come on –
MAN 2: Put it down. Right now.
MAN 1: I didn’t –
MAN 2: You wanna do it, do it.
Counterintuitively, smartphone plays – known, when people still had ipods as podplays – use technology to invite you to ignore your technology and engage with the world around you. The character April invites us to “look around at all the people. They all have secrets. Right now, on this boat, someone is thinking about death. Who is it?” In Act 2, Paul encourages us to be in the moment:
“You are here. Feel it. Feel it on the top of your head and below your toes. Feel the wind glide around your ears, under your nails, around your waist. You. Are. Here. Smell it. Who’s around you, what they’re eating, the perfume they wore this morning. The sea. See it. The horizon. The sky. Be outside with me now. Come on. Right to the edge with me – doesn’t matter where specifically, just at the railing, teetering on the brink between the boat and the enormous, empty water. Lean against the railing. Feel that? The wind? The sun? You’re inside something now. Something enormous. So just relax and breathe it in. You’re one person – one person – on this boat as it moves 5.2 miles from one island to another, inches ever-so-fractionally across the globe. You are here.”
New York Theatre Review’s Michael Niederman wrote that the “revelatory thing about Ferry Play” is that it “encourages the listener to see a familiar part of the world in a whole new way.” The audience puts together the various pieces of the play by combining what they hear on the recording with what they see, touch, and smell in the live environment. This creates a new way of seeing and engaging: as Niederman says: “the city of New York becomes a different animal, and you see the world around you in a brand new way”.
Because the ferry runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, audiences can experience the play any time they want: on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon, at 3am, or during rush hour. Audiences have the freedom to engage whenever they please – they don’t have to plan ahead or show up on time. They can do half the play one day and do the other half a month later – or, as one of our critics did, do Act 1, have dinner on Staten Island (as Niederman did), and do Act 2 after dessert. They don’t have to wear anything special. They can do it by themselves or with a group of friends.
(Photo left: A screenshot of the app from Erin B. Mee.)
And it only costs $1.99 – the price of the app (the ferry is free). Audiences who can’t afford Broadway (or theatre at other venues) can afford this.
Because of this, we happen to have attracted a very diverse audience for Ferry Play. When I was handing out flyers at Whitehall Terminal, I tried to anticipate who might be interested, but I was always wrong. People with green hair and white hair were interested; a five year old with pink barrettes and a gentleman in his 80s; people carrying guitars, people carrying briefcases, people dressed in hospital scrubs, people pushing strollers; people of all ages, races, incomes, and dress styles. Some were actors themselves; others were people who have never been to the theatre before. One young man offered to write a sequel; another woman told me she didn’t own a smartphone but would listen to it on her computer. The only “demographic” that wasn’t interested was the “I’m-late-and-I’m-afraid-I’m-going-to-miss-the-ferry” demographic. Otherwise, it was impossible to make any kind of generalization. Most ferry riders were hungry for a theatrical experience (except the guy who thought it was for tourists, and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that he was not a tourist).
What have I learned about engaging theatre audiences? Make it cheap. Locate it in a place people already go. Make it interesting and special but not elitist. These are not revolutionary ideas, but we need to put them into practice.
Erin B. Mee has directed at New York Theatre Workshop, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, HERE, The Ontological at St. Mark’s, SoHo Rep, HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, and Judson Church. She has directed two productions in India with Sopanam. In 2013 she co-founded This Is Not A Theatre Company with playwright Jessie Bear, and together they have mounted a site-specific musical in an actual natatorium called Pool Play; a dinner party in honor of Henri Rousseau (A Serious Banquet); Readymade Cabaret, a Dada cabaret using the philosophies and techniques of Duchamp; and Ferry Play, a site-specific smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.