Interactive online theatre is lighting things up in pandemic era
By Peter Marks
Word nerds of the world, rejoice. Puzzle master David Kwong is adding his cerebral talents to a burgeoning new performing arts franchise - participatory theater online - with a warmly brain-teasing show that is selling tickets as fast as they can be printed.
Kwong's "Inside the Box" is the latest interactive digital project from the Geffen Playhouse, a Los Angeles-based theater company that has emerged as a dominant player in this lively pandemic-era genre: Its previous show, Helder Guimarães's "The Present," merged sleight-of-hand with stories about magicians, and achieved national hit status. Now, Kwong, 40, who creates crossword puzzles for the New York Times, has followed with a show that has Zoom audiences downloading quiz packets and solving mind games with him.
"My goal is not to stump people," Kwong said in a phone interview. "My goal is to guide them to that 'aha' moment where they can feel smart."
In the early days of the covid-19 shutdown - remember that far back? - there seemed few innovative opportunities for the theater world to engage audiences who were stuck at home on their laptops. Many companies raced to post videos of their stage productions on their websites. Bereft theatergoers clicked on, but the offerings often look stodgy. One's patience with the remove from the action wears thin all too quickly. For every suavely served up "Hamilton" on Disney Plus, there are a dozen wooden videos that prompt you to log off well before the curtain call.
Several months into the pandemic, though, performers, designers and writers are using technology - and more generally, connectivity with people in their homes - with more ingenuity. They're skillfully adapting some of the devices honed in live performance over the years - namely, techniques to break the fourth wall and lure spectators into the show. And in the process, theater is reclaiming for these trying times its rightful status as the most intimate of art forms.
The pioneers in this pursuit are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the smaller, scrappier outlets, which are proving better equipped to usher the conceits of interactivity to market. Commercial producers of more lavish entertainments have yet to improvise online in substantive ways; it may be that the bare-bones mandates of platforms such as Zoom conform more readily to the values of more modest theater operations. Thus you have companies such as Baltimore's experimental The Acme Corporation coming up with a recorded play that's mailed to you with all the performance tools included, or Washington, D.C.'s Irish arts emporium, Solas Nua, staging live renditions online of its "Emoji Play," in which the audience converses with the characters, on Zoom and WhatsApp.
New York's Working Theater conceived a virtual political play, "American Dreams," a commentary on America's immigration policies in the form of a game show in which the online audience votes for one of three fictional applicants to be granted citizenship. The show is now on a digital tour, having already "stopped" at Bethesda, Md.'s Round House Theatre. Based in Boston, "The Jar," a group that has a participant choose a work of art that sparks an hour-long discussion with other enrolled guests, has moved vibrantly from live to digital sessions; so far, it has sponsored 58 virtual programs for 861 attendees. And in Sojourn Theatre's "The Race," recently performed at Georgetown University, the cast leads a Zoom audience in exercises, scripted and improvised, about their understanding of leadership in a challenging time for democracy.
Sojourn artistic director Michael Rohd, who staged in-person versions of "The Race" in previous presidential election years, sees the new interactive formulas as theatrical progress.
"This is a moment in which interactivity and access are being deployed to a purpose, and not just as entertainment," he said. "I think that's really cool for theater continuing to iterate as a form and for it to be central in a time of tumult and change.
"It's clear that democracy is dysfunctional," he added. "Artists are trying to make plurality work in these little microcosms."
The agitprop of "American Dreams" ultimately presents a spectator with an impossible choice: a Palestinian chef, a Pakistani university graduate and a Mexican national who entered the United States illegally and served in the armed forces all seem equally worthy. The very idea that judgments are being rendered on that worthiness is an affront and, of course, the point. Having to cast a vote for just one is - after 90 minutes of getting to know them all - stressful, to say the least. In both "The Jar" and "The Race," the colloquy benefits from skillful steerage by a moderator in the former case and a group of young actors in the latter. These online meetups often provide a richness of topical conversation that eludes the town halls staged by TV news networks.
But it may be that interactive programming finds it broadest audience as an escape from political realities. Magicians like Guimarães - who has been performing stage shows for several years - devised a sensational accompaniment for "The Present," which ended a 248-show run this month. A "mystery box" containing items used in his act was mailed to every ticket-buying household: 6,200 boxes in all, in 49 states and 23 countries. Other shows of this sort are now cropping up, including Brooklyn-based mentalist Jason Suran's "Reconnected," an hour filled with displays of his dexterity as a mind reader. Before the show, which is in previews, viewers watch a short video in which they are instructed to assemble basic tools they'll use as Suran performs his confounding stunts.
Puzzle master Kwong, like Suran, employs the simple Guimarães format. Over 90 minutes from his home, he intersperses stories about the history of his craft with diverting word games. You learn about the origins of jigsaw puzzles, acrostics and Archimedes boxes. At intervening moments, the engaging Kwong announces in the intonations of a game show host, "It's puzzle time!" and we're off on one jaunt to word-nerd heaven after another.
Being called on for an answer out of the blue - or volunteering yourself - as 25 or 30 strangers stare at you conveys a certain, special joy. (Especially when you're correct.) It's kind of like extending a hand through the screen to the rest of the human race and an outstretched hand reaches back. Theater's visceral strength is thereby reaffirmed, its raw ability to affect you validated anew through software.
"To quote Will Shortz, a good puzzle always makes the solver feel smart," Kwong said, referring to a renowned colleague. And a good piece of interactive theater online makes the viewer feel sated.
The Washington Post