The ocean is filled with so much waste that it has begun to form land masses made purely of junk. There are currently five garbage patches growing like a cancer on our planet. The largest is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You read that right. These masses of trash are so enormous that they have names. It isn’t any shock to most people that our planet is being polluted at an alarming rate, but how many of us really understand the gravity of the situation, and what would it take to inspire change?
“Of the Deep: Meditations Upon the Death of a Blue Whale” is a reflection on the consequences and complexities of the climate crisis. It is a community created work, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag at Iowa State University, and presented virtually at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Through visually stunning shadow puppetry, the play presents several short scenes on topics such as ocean pollution, the whaling industry, and the environmental impact of human interference in the ocean. The play was extremely aesthetically well-done, and the collaborators showed great resourcefulness and creativity in producing a beautiful work of theatre that is safe to view during the pandemic. The play’s puppets and effects were even created completely with recycled materials. However, while the play sought to highlight one of the greatest crises of our time, its sense of urgency fell flat. Climate change theatre is emerging as a prominent new play genre, but can it really compare with the shock value of witnessing environmental wreckage in real life?
I will never forget when the nation got its first glimpse at the photos from the BP oil spill in 2010. For much of my generation, this was our first major experience viewing the devastating effects of human consumption and waste. Images of otters covered in the pitch-black goo and videos of seagulls struggling to escape the oil-infested water dominated the news cycle for weeks. The shocking first-hand evidence of environmental destruction sparked some of the largest protests for climate action that our country has ever seen. For many this event was a wake-up call. We are destroying our planet, and we have a responsibility to do something about it.
“Of the Deep” may paint a beautifully tragic picture of the state of our oceans, but what is the message? Where is the call to action? The play does not bring any new perspective to the conversation. We already know there’s trash in the ocean. Most Millennials and Gen Z-ers say that climate change is one of their top voting issues, so if the goal of the play was to raise awareness, the awareness has already been raised. Currently about 83 percent of American adults say they take individual actions to consume less waste, but only changing individual habits is not enough. People need to be angry enough to demand accountability from larger corporations like BP, who view the Earth as their personal dumping grounds. What most climate change theatre misses is that shocking image that will instill fury in the audience. The image that will come to mind every time they think of climate destruction. They are missing the sea turtle whose body has grown around a plastic bag, or the baby otter dying in a pool of oil.
While I applaud the creators of “Of the Deep” for their innovation in creative storytelling during a time when live theatre is non-existent, unfortunately the show comes off as too tranquil of a look at a crisis that demands discomfort. When people become too comfortable, they become complacent. The artistic approach does not hold the power to incite protest. Climate change theatre is lacking the shocking imagery that will press people to hold large corporations accountable. The only way to achieve swift justice for our dying planet is to show people something they can’t look away from.
In the past year, I have consumed large amounts of digital theatre. This week at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, I saw more than I did the entirety of last year. The rise in digital theatre popularity due to COVID-19 has uncovered and overcome challenges that were previously untouched. All theatre has some downsides, but these positives are what has kept theatre alive this year.
In all honesty, live theatre has not always been the most accessible art form. As a college student, I just do not have the extra money to pay for admission or to take off work to go to New York. Having family out of state has also made it difficult for my family to see the productions I have been part of. However, with digital theatre my family and I can watch many productions without damaging our bank accounts. No matter where they are, they can watch plays with just a few clicks. With “Zoom plays” in local theatre, all you need is the link and a bit of free time. As far as Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, they have become more accessible as well. With the addition of Hamilton to Disney Plus many people had access, including myself to something none of us would have the chance to see otherwise. Without that I most likely would have spent my entire career with only the soundtrack.
It is safe to say digital theatre is healthier. So many of my castmates would have given up theatre to avoid the risk exposure and spread of COVID-19. As an actor, I can remember one of my castmates being sick with a stomach bug one week, and by the next week there were multiple cast and crew members with the same symptoms. This is no problem for digital theatre. Most theatre companies have zoom meetings in place of face-to-face rehearsals. When someone is sick, they do not have contact with everyone at daily rehearsals, keeping more actors healthy.
Digital theatre has expanded the entire art form and become a factory for more content. As most functioning college theatre groups were off-campus, they had to learn technology skills to keep up with classes or attend rehearsals. These skills can be applied later on when we go back to “normal” theatre. Beginning to livestream plays from zoom has changed what theatre means. Though it has blurred the line between film and theatre, digital theatre has opened a new era of theatre that is bound to be taught about for years to come. The need for relatable content that is current and usable grew. Because of that, directors, actors, and playwrights rose to the occasion. Many directors have had trouble finding a play that is compatible with zoom. Other issues directors had were complications with royalties and companies making excessive rules over what you could do with the production. Frustrated and confused, directors wrote their own plays or had their students write for them. Again, being off-campus cuts off access to plays and theatre libraries. As a result of this, more playwrights produced more content and some actors became playwrights. My personal experience with playwriting started this year. I had never written for a play before. Just this year, I wrote four monologues. Some I wrote in the need of some form of therapy, others because the things happening around me inspired me. In the end, digital theatre has been very beneficial to audiences, actors, directors, and playwrights alike.
There comes a very special point about once every other generation of theatre artist. This point being, for a lack of a better word, the worry that theatre as a whole will come to an abrupt and destructive end. The death of theatre if you will. However, at the end of crisis, after we have blanketed our worries under a façade of normalcy, we once again learn that theatre never dies. Theatre cannot die, it merely evolves.
In the midst of early 2020, global pandemic struck. Masks went from a suggestion to a requirement, social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings started being enforced, local and professional theatres started to close, and many of our fellow artists lost their jobs. Many of us, as so many have thought before, thought “this is it, this is the end of theatre.” We have never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a whole host of minute problems that accompanied it during 2020, theatre expanded into a new vein. One that, up to this point, had yet to be explored in detail. The digital era of theatre has begun and with it an expanded and revised definition of the word we think we know so well. Theatre may once again attempt to return to its roots, however the new methods explored by artists of the craft around the world will never fade. They will instead become an integral part of what we consider to be the “meta” of theatre. Tragedy has once again caused theatre to evolve, and the art will be better because of it.
I first realized this odd transformation while watching two unique productions during the virtual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival of Region 5. The first of which being Jabberwocky, By Lewis Carroll, adapted and directed by Ethan Koerner and performed by the students at Northwestern College. The production combines the use of various forms of puppetry with a heavy saturation of audience interaction via phone apps. This production of Jabberwocky highlights a first for me, and possibly for many others with the usage of digital interactivity, the likes of which you would expect from a traditional theatre performance. Koerner and their ensemble has proven that the dawn of the “digital theatre era” is upon us. That the magic of theatre, the intimate nature of theatre can still live, despite the audience not actually being in the theatre.
Another production that proved the evolution of theatre for me was that of Iowa State University’s devised production: Of the Deep, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag. Like Northwestern’s Jabberwocky, this production shares its love and expert use of puppetry to tell a story worthy of being called theatre. Unlike the previous production however, Of the Deep relies entirely on the imagery and different styles of puppetry to tell its story. What shocked me the most about this piece was the lack of dialogue. Before me stands a several different interconnected stories that have nothing to tie them together except for music and imagery. Something that that classical-elitist theatre artist in me was horrified to learn at first. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is still theatre. It is simply a new and uncomfortable way of doing it, as most experimental forms of theatre tend to be.
The era of digital theatre is just beginning, and everything that we’ve learned during its inception is here to stay. In the future, there will be more tragedy and with it more evolutions and developments in the way we do theatre. Where we our now is simply another step in the monstrous beast that we call theatre. The greatest hope that we have to continue to be theatre artists is to bow our heads to our immortal, ever changing monster.
American and Global Theater as we knew it has suffered a quick and sudden death. The productions displayed at the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival (KCACTF) give me hope that the magic and beauty of the theater may persist and grow back to the heights it had once enjoyed for so longer. However, whether we will actually witness this resurrection of biblical proportions is yet to be determined. But as it stands, Broadway and many theater spaces will remain in their caskets until at least 2025, with some never to emerge from the grave.The way that we used to consume theater, the way I grew up on, may never truly be as it once was. The days of a packed house in a smaller Iowa theater may be a distant memory.
And though it feels as though we are dragging our downcast and dismal selves through the dismay and darkness that has become known as 2020, we can take delight in the disillusion of those who believed in the “proper way to do theater” and embrace the somewhat late revelation that theater does not need to, and should not, be restricted to simply one stage in one building. And since research shows that the coronavirus can linger in still air for hours, having an audience sit tightly packed for hours is no longer a very attractive notion.
When the pandemic hit the United States, hundreds of plays were being performed, with thousands of people working on them. And all were shuttered seemingly overnight, including my own production. We were able to perform it on Zoom, but as any performer who was forced to relegate their performance to a digital box big enough for their headshot will tell you, it’s not the same. There was just something about not being able to perform it with my castmates next to me that just sort of cheapened and demystified it all.
As two weeks of lockdown grew into months and months of hibernation for the theatrical and entertainment industry, with actors not being allowed to share the same air as each other let alone a scene, the question shifted from ‘When will we be able to resume?’ to the much eerier and monumental question of ‘How do we resume?’. How does the theater live through a time of sudden social stagnation where it’s almost impossible to see blood relatives or make house payments, much less purchase an expensive ticket to a live performance in a building with poor circulation. While the early answer was table and theatrical reads of productions using the now extremely popular conferencing application Zoom, these KCACTF theatrical pieces and experiences may possibly not only answer the question of how theater survives during these incredibly tumultuous time, but how these types of productions might survive and help theaters stay open when, yes ladies and gentlemen I said when, this happens again.
These productions spanned different mediums and showed the enduring spirit and tenacity of the theater community. There were Zoom productions that were spiced up with the use of the app's green screen effect and color grading to try and help the audience suspend their disbelief. St. Ambroise University’s radio play of An Enemy of the People was a great example of the power that audio shows have, such as radio plays and fictional podcasts, in helping to create a world and suck the audience in with just the use of the actors’ voices and light soundscaping. Minnesota State University and Culver-Stockton College both performed on stage and recorded the performance, incorporating a mask as part of the costume (this is what I think the new normal might be once we have a handle of the coronavirus). Iowa State and Northwestern University both incorporated the centuries old practice of shadow puppetry to tell compelling and entertaining stories while creating an experience that is fun for everyone young and old. Northwestern even combined past techniques with present day technology to entertain the Earth’s next inheritors.
What I take from all of these productions put on by the next generation of performers is hope. I find hope in the drive to continue to create, in the variety of quality content that has come from a forced need to adapt. I find hope in the refusal to be deterred from creating to help keep one of the best historians of human culture alive and thriving. But there is one thing that is for sure. You may never see theater the same way ever again.
As I sit in a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt at my desk watching pre-recorded productions of plays, I wonder if the magic of theatre has disappeared during the pandemic. Of course, the pre-pandemic version of theatre cannot exist with coronavirus cases in the country at an all-time high, but I still wonder how theatre companies can respond to the pandemic while keeping the magic of theatre alive. I also appreciate how dedicated some universities and theatre companies are to put on in-person productions, but are the risks of these types of shows really worth the final product?
While the increased accessibility of theatre during the pandemic is great for the art form as a whole. It still has me wondering if the disappearance of the physical community of the theatre is responsible for this disappearance of theatre magic. Part of what makes going to see theatre fun is dressing up and going to meet with friends to go experience a show together. After these shows, we would always go out to eat and talk about the production together to really digest what we just saw. While Zoom hangouts after watching productions are similar in their atmosphere, nothing can level up to our pre-pandemic rituals. How can theatre companies recreate this community to keep it alive, and also not put members at risk of contracting the coronavirus?
After watching a few of the productions from this year’s pool of KCACTF productions, I got flashbacks to working on previous pandemic productions through both Zoom and in-person, masked productions While I searched to find the spark that is a part of shows gave me through these productions, I still couldn’t find it. While the shows that I watched for the festival, both in-person and virtual, covered all the bases in terms of quality of productions and skills of the actors, something was still missing. Perhaps it was the masks covering the actors’ faces during the in-person shows. Or it might have been the use of virtual backgrounds during the Zoom productions. It most likely, however, was the computer screen separating me from the actors.
While these streamed or pre-recorded in-person shows are great at providing many accessible options to audiences, they often lack many aspects that don’t make them worth the risks. These shows are often staged with over six feet of space between actors, which results in an overall drop in energy. This energy can be felt in the performance and even through the computer screen. Viewing in-person productions on the computer screen can vary based on the types of recording equipment that the theater used. While actors do wear masks, these block the actors’ facial expressions and muffle much of the important parts of the show. Theatre magic is hard to define, but for me, it’s that moment where I can feel for the characters in the show and am completely enveloped in the story. I found myself removed from these performances from my concern for the safety of the actors on stage.
The safer way of performing during the pandemic has proven to be through Zoom performances. While many suffer from ‘Zoom Fatigue’ at the moment, it has proven to be useful to connect with others during the pandemic. Theatre creatives have found ways to edit these live recordings together, using virtual backgrounds, to create an environment that resembles a theatre space. Zoom performances encourage writers to show off their skills as well as designers a chance to flex different muscles to produce different types of designs. Because of the position of actors, this mode of pandemic performance proves to be more intimate and easier for me to digest. Actors also get more comfortable with their self-image through the process.
While many creative endeavors have come from the pandemic, I suggest that we all agree that while in-person shows are ideal, there’s no sense in putting actors and audiences at risk just to pull them off. There’s no sense in lowering the quality of work just to bring back a little normalcy when we all can agree that these are not normal times. Until cases of the coronavirus have decreased and the vaccine has successfully rolled out, let’s continue to use technology to better connect us until we can safely assemble to experience the magic of theatre once again.
In September of 2020 Ben Brantley, the infamous theatre critic/assassin, announced that he’d be resigning from his critic position as the New York Times. And many rejoiced. Thousands of theatre fans, many with some theatre reference in their usernames, celebrated that the tyrant was taken down. Theatre fandom and Brantley, along with other theatre critics, butt heads. With article titles like “King Kong: The Mess that Roared,” Brantley has been under fire for being “too negative” and killing the show, a premature close. However, are critics really the only show killers? Or better, is there a future where this question will not exist anymore?
First off, let me say that theatre fandom is intense. “Fandom” is a mixture of “fans” and “kingdom,” and it’s a vast one always at war with itself. You can scroll through hours of fanart of characters, covers on YouTube, animatics, etc. What’s most interesting is the comment sections and forums. Theatre fandom doesn’t center around theatre as a whole, but on a few choice shows through some bizarre process that I can’t crack. And in these comments and forums people, being adventurous through their anonymity, have no qualms of being their own show killers by tearing each other apart.
I am not saying that this intense passion is a bad thing. On the contrary, this fanbase is the reason for theatre’s recent rise in popularity. Armed with fan blogs and theatre Twitterers, theatre is being shaped in a wonderful new way.
Through social media every theatre geek can have a voice...which is not always a good thing. As an example, let us look at Heathers the Musical. With cult followings in both film and theatre, it was only a matter of time before the show hopped the pond into London in 2018. At first, fans were so excited. But that excitement morphed into poison when it was announced that the cast was led by Carrie Hope Fletcher. Fletcher, now preparing to star in the titular character in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cinderella, is many things: a YouTuber, a regular on many book best-sellers list, and currently holds the record for the longest running Eponine in Les Misérables. She also is not a size two, something she’s not ashamed of showing through her body-positive videos and Instagram posts. It was the theatre fandom that was body-negative. Another quirk of theatre fandom is being a hardcore purist, so there already was a dislike for the show not being a carbon-copy of the Off-Broadway production. Many people called for the role to be reprised by actor Barret Wilbert Weed, the original actor. Weed is also closer to female beauty standards than Fletcher. Audiences bereaved Fletcher for her rolls and stretchmarks.
However, they are not the only ones who body-shame. In 2018, the New York Times review of 2018’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe critiqued actor Alysha Umphress’ weight. The Times later apologized, but this shows that critics sometimes take their job’s name too far. Critics do hold a very important job in the theatre scene, however. As ticket prices skyrocket, reviews help patrons decide what to buy. Like buying something online and looking at the star-rating, reviews are necessary. And theatre fandom is heavily influenced by marketing, which monopolizes theatre discourse. Critics should offer unbiased outlooks.
This is where many people point out a flaw in the institutions of modern theatre journalism. Many critics are adults, a demographic that Broadway increasingly caters to. Because of this, theatre journalism is no longer apt to judge every show, leading to bad reviews which kill a show. Theatre journalism must change.
One person of one demographic (oftentimes the most privileged demographic) can not sufficiently criticize every show because not `every show is made for everybody. However, there also needs to be some sort of structure to avoid that monopoly of theatre marketing. It has become a question of which show killer should be the most prominent, but can they work together? The future of theatre critique needs to be built off mutual respect between the two sides which will take both sides meeting each other halfway. News corporations need to recognize the changing audiences and have a more inclusive gang of critics to publish their thoughts. And theatre fans everywhere need to recognize the invisible influences that dictates their Twitter rants. Theatre is for everyone and both journalism and audiences need to reflect that. It is only then will the league of assassins will put down their knives for better theatre enjoyment.
According to the Mayo Clinic, 45 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly.” Smartphones and social media have given today’s youth the opportunity to be more connected than ever, and during a pandemic, the importance of technology cannot be understated. However, the never-ending stream of social media can leave many feeling isolated.
Eric Coble’s “Ghosts in the Machine” directed and visually designed by Brad M. Carlson of Truman State University, tells the story of eight seemingly unconnected high school students. When they begin to get strange texts from numbers they don’t recognize, the students discover that their cell phones may have minds of their own. While trying to solve the mystery of the bizarre messages, they discover just how disconnected they are from their school community and find out that there are so many friendships to be made if they can look past their cellphone screens.
Although originally written to be performed as a staged play, the script for “Ghosts in the Machine” adapts to a Zoom reading flawlessly. There is a bit of a lag in the beginning, as one who is accustomed to seeing a show live must adjust their perspective to allow for the enjoyment of a newer form of theatre. However, it quickly becomes clear that this production has used all of the resources available through Zoom and editing to create as cohesive a theatrical experience as one might find in sitting in a theatre. Some aspects of the show were perhaps even enhanced by the opportunities that a Zoom production allows. A large amount of dialogue in the play takes place through texting. When the play is performed live, the texts are intended to be shown through projections, but Zoom allows the audience to clearly see the texts as they would appear on a cellphone. There is no need to worry about sitting in the perfect place to see the projection screen or struggling to read the far-away text.
Despite not having a true set, Carlson’s design uses backgrounds to show where the characters are and create a complete “stage” picture. However, unlike many Zoom productions I have seen, the backgrounds are not the same for every character in a scene. Several different photos, taken at different angles, and perfectly formatted on-screen create clear, full pictures of the high-school hallway, locker-room, or most impressively, the cafeteria, during which all eight characters are on-screen at the same time. Carlson also plays with lighting and color effects, using a duller, grey-toned pallet for the testimonial scenes, and a brighter, more life-like pallet for the scenes that take place in the high school. The audience even gets to see the Zoom equivalent of a spotlight. During significant moments for characters, the production slightly darkens all the Zoom screens except for the speaking character. This allows the audience to still see the reactions of the other characters while highlighting key moments. The play also includes a soundscape created by Jacob Baxley that will make the audience feel exactly as if they are listening in on a conversation in a crowded high-school hallway.
The breakout star of this production is Bonnie Jeune as Melissa, the friendly, but friendless, shy outsider. Jeune’s performance perfectly encapsulates the heart of this play. She creates a character that is so excluded that she at first can’t believe that anyone would want to be her friend. Even in the more tense moments of the play, every move she makes tells the story of someone who is simply happy to be a part of something. Her presence stands out in the group as a kind-hearted, lovable character who just needed to be given the chance to be a good friend.
“Ghosts in the Machine” is a stellar selection for a pandemic-era production. Brad M. Carlson has created a performance that is visually appealing and entertaining while being safely produced through Zoom. The play also tells an important story of the way that technology can tie us together or keep us apart. We are collectively accumulating more screen time than ever, and it is important for us to remember when technology has its benefits, and when it has limitations. “Ghosts in the Machine” allows us to appreciate technology, while also looking forward to a time where we can go back to making connections outside of our screens.
The vast majority of our formative years are spent asking our parents to protect us from the monsters under our bed. We forced them check under the bed and in the closet, and even occasionally made them lay in bed with us when we were scared. My parents even made me dreamcatchers to protect my dreams against them. But what happens when our parents aren’t there to protect us?
The Jabberwocky, originally a nonsensical poem by Lewis Carroll, has been adapted and directed by Ethan Koerner from Northwestern College, to answer that exact question. The story follows a child, who after being read the titular poem by their mother, falls into a dream world where they receive no parental protection from the literary horrors that await them within. The plot is split into several different scenes, each one visualizing a unique and important moment from the original poem.
Koerner’s production is meant to pique the interest of imagination immersion as concepts. The entire production feels like a twenty-minute dreamscape. I felt as if I was placed inside the mind of the main character, that I was also falling asleep and waking up in a world filled with unknown wonder and terror. However, my experience with The Jabberwocky, probably strayed farther from the perceived intention than expected. Koerner and his ensemble attempted to immerse the audience through the use of phone applications and mock “tour guides” leading us through the different parts of the boy’s imagination. However, I just did not respond well to the audience interaction. I think that the production works well as a separated entity, if the audience is forced to set back and watch the boy navigate his dreamscape. After, if his parents cannot protect him, neither should we.
The ensemble of the Northwestern College theatre program has done a brilliant job of combining limited vocal work (primarily recitation of the poem) with masterful non-verbal puppeteering. The ensemble has clearly spent a long, difficult journey attempting to bring life to simple constructs. Therein lies the main issue, a vast majority of the time theatre is performed using actors expressing emotions. The transferal of emotion and movement from human body to lifeless body, and the ability to give a simple puppet the appearance of complex and vivid movement is not one to laugh at. Koerner and ensemble managed to make me see this puppet as a living entity. I rooted for his success and was scared for his failure. I actually felt as if I am reliving a dream from my childhood.
My many thanks go out to both the production and design teams, for without them my shared dream experience would not be possible. After all, what good is a dream if you cannot describe it visually? Ethan Koerner returns to the dreamscape once more as the scenographer. Koerner and his assistants, Altman, Schaeffer, and Van Gorp, along with the scenic and properties crew, were responsible for the largest and perhaps the most important task of all: creating not only the dreamscape, but also the characters within the dreamscape. They made the monsters, the creatures, the boy, and just about everything else you can think of. For the amount of work placed on their shoulders, the work turned out astonishingly well.
However, all of their work placed behind an unlit surface yields nothing but emptiness. The dreamscape they envisioned, and the one I experienced would not have been made possible without the help of Drew Schmidt and their lighting, sound, and technologies crews. The design is simple and primitive, for good reason. A complex, jaw-dropping design for this production just is not needed, and I can tell that Schmidt understood this. The same can be said about the underscore they created, along with the help of Frances DeArmond. Simple and effective. Why muddy a digital production with frivolous light and sound design, when the majority of it will not transfer through a computer screen anyways? Some dreamscapes are chalk full of vibrant imagery, others can be dull and drab, and I see no issue with either.
At the end of the night, when I, and many others, awaken from our shared dream-like experience we realize how incredible Koerner’s production is. This production did a fantastic job of making me actually feel as if it were I dreaming, fighting to protect myself from the Jabberwocky. Some say the pen is mightier than the sword. But is the dreamcatcher I wonder?
Picture this, a descriptive sound-based story about a group of sightless people lost in the woods. That’s The Blind that Culver-Stockton College presented this year. The play written by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1890 seems timeless. The play is short, coming in at under thirty minutes, but is effective and exceptional. The way this play is written is an artful craft that has a shocking relevance today. The world has changed drastically in the past year, messing with everything it touches. This play nods to everyday life. It shows the conflicts we have and how quick we as humans are to blame each other. It masterfully expresses how we lash out at those around us during times of fear or stress.
With the help of Director Dr. Haidee Heaton, the cast succeeded in creating a strong production which, toward the end, caused me to feel a bit of anxiety. Part of the reason the fear and anxiety are so strong is because of the overlapping sounds, each added one at a time, starting with the wind, then the leaves, followed by the footsteps which grow louder. The blind women, hearing the footsteps coming closer, raise their voices in panic. In retaliation, the blind men raise theirs too. Adding to the already intense barrage of sound, the mad woman is moaning and sobbing and the child is crying and screaming. The severe feelings made this play one that I would enjoy watching again. There is an inkling of the supernatural stalking the blind in the forest. Between the child crying at seeing something no one else can and the birds flying around at harsh moments, the fear creeps in around the small discussions and disclosing of more information.
No actors are seen on stage, but this is a great play to produce during a global pandemic. In another sense, the lack of actors on stage can put the audience into the shoes of the blind characters. Using sound effects of the sea, leaves, footsteps, and wind aided the cast in effectively telling the story. These sound effects were listed in the program as The Elements. The four-person group splendidly imitated the sounds of nature. The sounds were accompanied by a semicircle forest set and intense lighting (Seth Campbell). The reds presented fear and danger, while the greens brought the ambient forest feeling. The purple lights contrast the green lights rather well. The set and lighting were great, and the voices and sound effects are good enough to stand alone. I feel this would be a highly successful episode of a podcast, due to the recent popularity of podcasting. Overall, The Blind is worth a watch and a careful listen.
As coronavirus restrictions make performing theater in the manner that most of us are accustomed to close to impossible, many theater companies and troupes have begun experimenting with new methods to keep the show going, in the spirit of the most famous saying in show business. While some try brand new methods of performance, some are dusting off old classics and marrying them to new technologies and present life’s stipulations. Northwestern College’s presentation of the classic nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll does just this by combining the centuries old practice of shadow puppetry with activities and interactive mobile games to help keep viewers of all ages engaged.
As you are guided by a guide dressed as a 19th century woman, you witness a dramatic reading of Lewis’s original 28-line poem before being led into a performance area where you witness the Jabberwocky story as a hero’s quest. As you make your way through 7 different performance areas, you see different parts of the story; the hero finding the vorpal sword, facing off against the JubJub bird and the Bandersnatch, training with a wise knight and finally battling the Jabberwocky.
The puppet construction and performance was quite wonderful. The puppeteers were able to not only produce high quality puppets with a dynamic range of motion, but they were able to perform very close up and detailed scenes to help create a sense of depth in the story and display just how talented and dedicated the puppeteers were to this project. From a fully articulated Jabberwocky tail to finely detailed Bandersnatch hair, the commitment to consistent detail and a high quality product is really what makes the project feel complete and worth the half hour run-time.
Engaging puppets are not the only reason to experience this project. What makes this truly impressive is the incorporation of physical and mobile elements into the production. Since keeping children still for a 90 minute show is a monumental task on it’s own, this show is a brilliant example of coronavirus solutions that can benefit a theater long after the coronavirus is cured. From fun mobile games to dancing with the puts to interacting with light cues to move the story forward, never had I witnessed a theatrical experience that was as interactive as this one or made children squeal endlessly with delight as much as this. Save for maybe Disneyworld or a set of jangling keys.
The piece also had a musical score that blended with the story and performance elements well while reminding you of Tim Burton or Danny Elfman. As I took part in the virtual experience and not the physical one, this may not apply to the one held at Northwestern College. Though I believe that gives anyone reason enough to try both versions of this project. However, you can still participate in most of the activities through the virtual experience as well. It truly has the feel of a well oiled, professional production that has the ability to be performed for many years after the world returns to some semblance of normalcy.
We have all felt the effects of this deplorable disease that has derailed our routines and turned our daily lives into a desperate search for comfort. This project provides this sense of peace and comfort with a combination of old traditions that we know and present technology to keep everyone engaged. It may not be your typical theatrical performance or experience, but it has done something that is harder to do then simply adjust for a deadly virus. It keeps young, restless children happy and engaged without having to rely on technology. Simply put, this production uses a centuries old theatrical technique paired with 21st century technology to tell a 150 year old poem to a group of young children with very short attention spans. And that alone is something to enjoy.
Imagine a world where our smartphones use us to communicate with one another to create a world of their own. While this may seem like a work of science fiction, Ghosts in the Machine by Eric Coble makes it seem more like reality. As technology continues to advance through forms of artificial intelligence and more advanced computer hardware, the world described in the play seems to be approaching us at a very fast pace.
One day after lunch, Melissa receives a strange message from a random phone number. A group of students from her school receive similar messages that all deal with some type of underground activity. These messages quickly begin to escalate with one number even outing a girl as a lesbian. As the group tries to pinpoint where these messages are coming from, they mistakenly blame each other. They soon realize that they are trapped in this text chain together and none of them are responsible. It’s at this point that they realize their phones are texting each other by themselves. The group must soon decide how personal to get with their devices while not letting themselves get sucked into the world of technology.
I was drawn to the plot of Ghosts in the Machine because of how much we rely on technology as a society, especially during a pandemic. We connect with others almost exclusively through our devices and the internet. In the world of the play, characters deal with the fact that their devices are much more than just a piece of technology, but rather a connected world of virtual personalities. The play also tells a cautionary tale of the information we search for on the internet and what we choose to put out in the world. As our information becomes more valuable to sites across the web, the play warns of putting too much out there for people, or online bots, to find and use against you.
Even though this production was done virtually, it was probably the most visually interesting online play I’ve seen. Rather than just having the actors look directly into the camera to speak, Director Brad M. Carlson, had actors face one another in their frames to create a more realistic speaking environment. Not only this but the direction they faced often matched the perspective of their virtual background, creating an even more realistic environment. I was also surprised by the use of video filters and lighting changes that enhanced the overall vision of the show. While there were some questionable choices from both the director and the actors, everyone involved in this production deserves credit for creating a remarkable piece of theatre given the current global circumstances. All aspects of the show including the background design, costume design, camera angles, and video editing were thought out in a way that added to the director’s vision of the show and enhanced the viewing experience.
Throughout Ghosts in the Machine, Coble continues to ask the question about how soon this story will become reality. With aspects of this show becoming all too familiar, one wonders if a situation similar to this one will occur with the continued development of AI technology. The entire cast and crew of the Truman State University production deserve great renown for their efforts to create a relevant and creative show that can make audiences engage in a story that questions our reliance on technology and the devices in our pockets.
Jabberwocky, spun from Lewis Carrol’s nonsense poem, walks audiences through the adventures of not only the characters but also of the children themselves. Northwestern’s hallways transform into a maze-like world where the inhabitants of the play feel close and personal but are also the required six-feet-away. Spatial limitations have always been a part of theatre long before COVID. It is literally ingrained in the origin of the word: “Theatre” comes from the Greek word “theatron” which translates to “the seeing place.” There is no art without a place to perform and a place to watch, this prominent rule is what separates theatre from other art forms. And in the time of COVID, stripping away the physical place of theatre has left audiences unfulfilled. Yes, it’s nice to watch Zoom plays and livestreams, but watching from a screen will never satisfy. However, it’s imaginative stagings, like Jabberwocky, that combat this emptiness. Transforming theatre into an immersive experience for children not only produces unique storytelling, but brilliantly makes obstacles opportunities by changing what this “seeing place” is. Plus, the joy from the young audience members offers vicarious jubilation for the at-home audience.
These opportunities start with Ethan Koerner, adapter and director. Carrol’s poem is a short 166 words long, so how do you adapt it into a play that’s longer than the 84-minute read time? Koerner was inspired by the multiple readings he has done to his daughter. The nonsense names of the creatures and the steady pace quickly create an imaginary world in the minds of younglings, and it was Koerner’s job to translate that. With visuals either projected or done with puppetry that Koerner designed (with his assistants Ryan Altman, Sofia Schaeffer, Juliana Van Gorp) we can see that imaginary word start to form. The visuals walk the line between intricate enough to follow along and vague enough so the youngsters can imagine themselves as the hero slaying the title creature.
The young audience members, who seem to be between the ages of six and eleven, form a small squad thanks to the Tour Guide. These conductors trail the train of children through multiple viewing areas that bestow individual chapters of the tale. The three-dimensional personalities of the performance come to life beyond the scenography thanks to the powers of sound and light, both designed by Drew Schmidt. Yes, the projected epics are wonderful to watch, but true immersion depends a lot on the interim in between. Schmidt’s talents encompass building hallways and outside offices, creating a comprehensive world which you travel through with the show’s protagonist. Some of the best scenes are at the beginning. We start with flat, storybook-like puppets where a father kisses his son goodnight. And then when the boy wakes up to start his quest, the puppetry shifts to silhouetted people on sticks in a wonderfully crisp projection.
Jabberwocky has enough whimsy that you practically taste it through the screen. The students at Northwestern College led by Ethan Koerner have not only created a quaint quirky play but have also shown that in hard times champions adjust. Can’t fill a 196-seat theatre with children? Then let them out of the seats and let them slay the monster in the story. Through making the “seeing place” inhabit wherever it works, theatre is changing and adapting. This is a part of COVID theatre that I hope stays after all the vaccines and masks: Theatre should be a close, personal, and accessible experience for everyone. Now excuse me, I have to go wield my sword and fight the monsters.