When Claire Wood turned to online theater last year, something unexpected happened. The playwright had always intended for her to play interactive roulette, and in its online form, he asked Zoom audiences to vote on how couples on a dating game show were matched.
This side of the performance, staged by his own company Production Lines, went according to plan. What she hadn’t anticipated was the spontaneous use of the chat function by the public.
“They started commenting on the characters,” she says. “A dialogue started between different spectators. It was exciting because I was sitting alone, watching my actors who were scattered all over the place, and I had the impression that people were there, listening and taking something out. the whole thing is vivid and alive.”
These actors were good enough at improvisation to incorporate commentary into the script. It gave each performance the “you had to be there” quality that we take for granted in live theater, but can be hard to find on screen.
It made him think. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced artists and audiences to keep their distance. Few, including Wood herself, would say that was ideal, but could there be a way, she wondered, to get more out of the audience presence? Would it be possible, even online, to break down the barrier between spectator and performer?
‘I spent August 2020 in total rage that there was no theatre,’ says Wood, who works a day job as a civil servant and has a long record as a director and writer with the Edinburgh Graduate Theater Group. “Then I thought, ‘For God’s sake, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Everyone’s in the same boat. Can you do something interesting given the constraints we have? »
The trick, she explained, was to write a play that used the tools provided by the Internet. “I wanted to adapt the theater to the medium,” she says. “I thought, ‘Is there a way to take the interaction we’re doing comfortably in a Microsoft Teams meeting and present it as a theater build together?’
She adds, “What’s great about acting is the feeling of being connected to the performers and the people around you and sharing an experience. I was wondering if you could present a play via Zoom, but using the audience interaction to influence what happens.”
Prism, his latest online game, draws on his experience with roulette and, to a lesser extent, 2020’s Shrapnel, which was about pandemic loneliness. The novel puts the audience in the role of a panel in a child custody case. In front of them are three people: the father, a yoga teacher; the mother, a Hollywood actor; and Tzeporah, the mother’s European PA, who never stops caring for their poor child, Storm.
The four-year-old is due to go to school, but will her first day be in Forres with dad, Los Angeles with mom, or Switzerland with the AP?
This means, of course, that the six actors in the production of Ross Hope must be prepared to respond to the decisions of the public. In Roulette, the audience chose the order of the scenes and voted for the couple they wanted to bring together. Prism’s audience goes one step further and chooses the content.
Wood wrote three alternate flashback scenes and three endings. Depending on the will of each audience, it is possible that a flashback scene and two endings will never be heard. It’s not as elaborate as Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, which has 16 possible endings, but it’s created with the same spirit of adventure.
“It’s a thankless gig for the actors because they’ve signed up to learn a third more than ever before,” she says. “It’s difficult because the presentation of the characters also varies according to the version of the story that we hear. They will not be told which version they have to do because it will be decided at the time by the public. Everything is scripted but it’s all a leap of faith.”
Supported by Creative Scotland’s Digital Pivot program, which helps people develop technical skills, the piece also deals with the unreliability of memory. “You know when you think back to an experience you had with someone and you both recount it and your versions are completely different? You were both in the exact same place, but you’ll each remember One version that pays no attention to the other version Prism starts from the idea that three different people were involved in three separate conversations and that each of them has a distinct and different memory.
She adds, “The title Prism is chosen because perspective is everything. My perspective on how I behave might be entirely different from everyone else’s perspective. The piece might encourage people to think about the sincerity they have with themselves.”
Using the chat and voting features, the audience will choose which side of the story they want to hear. This means that even the playwright herself will be desperate to know what happens next. “Everyone’s story casts them as the hero and the others as hopeless, and then the audience decides who gets the child, so I can’t wait to see the outcome…”
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