A peek into the future which fully embraces both in-person and digital performance
If you follow me on this column, you’ll know I have long been interested in what is becoming of public spaces over several decades of retreat from them and refuge behind home screens and little screens. You’ll know that I have also been on the optimistic side of the spectrum of commentary. Although so much has been lost to digitization — main streets, book stores, museums — the trend has forced the hand of many entrepreneurs to reflect what business they are really in, and adapt.
The challenge for theatre companies, today — now that we are nearing the end of the pandemic — has been on my mind since I launched this series. When all is done, I will have interviewed several dozen producers, actors, playwrights, and allied theatre artists (composers, designers). A pale but visible thread has become visible. People who are actively working in the theatre have made good use of their time during the pandemic, not just by doing stuff — almost all virtually — but by taking the time to reflect and ask how the ascendance of digital will change things forever, possibly for the better by helping to make it so. It’s an important think. One can easily lose their way in a disruption. Some disruptions have created new categories of experience (e.g., the Zoom play may be here to stay, though perhaps under another name). But what is theatre? Does it need to be live? Can it include cinema? Can it include interaction design as we are seeing in the gaming world? For Marin Theatre Company (MTC), one of the Bay Area’s foremost arts institutions, the answer is yes, maybe, to all the above.
Last weekend, I logged in to watch MTC and Storykrapht’s production of Brilliant Mind by Bay area playwright and actor Denmo Ibrahim. (Storykrapht, the subject of a future article, is a digital tech and performance company founded by Ibrahim and Marti Wigder Grimminck) tells the story of Samir (Kal Naga), an immigrant in the afterlife, who keeps watch over his two adult children Dina (Ibrahim) and Yusef (Ramiz Monsef). They come together for the first time in years to prepare for Samir’s funeral. Like many other stories about funerals, it poses the question: can coming together in fact help people settle old scores, patch up differences, give new birth and meaning to relationships? Ibrahim delicately lays this all out with the additional twist of making someone who is absent (Samir) present in the story, a device as durable as the absent but omniscient Duke of Vienna in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
In fact, Samir is the most present. Samir’s monologues are the only live performance in the piece. The scenes with the children are filmed. Interaction comes via text with Samir who sends comments, pics, reactions (“oh god this story again?”). And then there are the program notes — 40-plus gorgeous pages of background, dramaturgical notes, context. It’s the kind of full-immersive experience that you get in some of the world’s most innovative museums, a category of art which is undergoing its own transformation. But it begs the question: what is core to theatre. MTC and Storykrapht say that live is the core, without which this would not be theatre. But the additional modalities of experience — cinema, interaction, plentiful access to words and images — enrich this production in ways that’s hard to match.
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I want to say more about live experience. But first just a few thoughts about the supporting modalities.
As anyone who has taken the time to make Zoom work knows, the medium affords the actors and producers an opportunity to experiment with cinematic performance values. Things that matter (so much): light, sound, music, and of course, acting with faces and small gestures that would be lost on most physical stages. This is what so many theatre producers learned about Zoom during the pandemic, and it’s the principal reason Zoom will not go away.
As for interactivity, it’s a modality that some will enjoy, and others will choose to ignore. The story in Brilliant Mind moves forward regardless of which modalities you choose to accept. Same with the program. You can go deep with supporting texts or images, or you can choose to just be present for Samir and what he has to say to you.
How do you connect with him? Why would you? For the reason that people for so long have been drawn to theatre: because he is a live human being who has a story you can relate to, if you open yourself to the experience. I’ve waited until this point to disclose that Samir is an Arab-American, a people who have been marginalized and misunderstood in the US, let alone on stages. The power of theatre resides in the presence of humans who you may not know before you enter the room, but who you know so much better after you leave. In the end, MTC — with Storykrapht, and play director Kate Bergstrom — has created a template for what a sustainable launch of a new play might look like. It is both restating and reimagining what business it’s in. That’s pretty big news in the theatre world. I expect more and more producers to hear about it.