Turn Off Your Devices? Sometimes Plays Turn Them On


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Jerry Dixon, left, and Malcolm Gets in “Steve” in New York.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Here’s a recipe for a terrible play: Characters are rarely in the same room as one another; conversations are typed rather than spoken; one side of a dispute can’t be heard by the audience.

Not great drama but, in 2015 America, the stuff of real life, where the rapid spread of mobile technology has redefined the way people talk, the way they shop, the way they walk down the street.

As a result, it is redefining how they interact onstage and, in the process, challenging playwrights, directors and set designers who are trying to figure out matters as technical as how to let theater audiences know what is being said on screens they cannot see, and as cosmic as what technological change means for human interconnectedness.

“My most important and consequential arguments and fights and interactions happen on my phone every day,” said the playwright Kevin Armento, whose recent Off Broadway work, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” told the story of a sexual relationship between a high school math teacher and her student entirely from the point of view of the boy’s smartphone.

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Smartphones are integral to the plot of “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” The writer, Kevin Armento, said it “wouldn’t be believable in 2015” without text.

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Russ Rowland

“How would you even tell this story if it weren’t through their text messages?” Mr. Armento asked. “It wouldn’t be believable in 2015.”

Even as some playwrights embrace the integration of digital communication into stage scenes as a new form of naturalism, other theater people worry that their art form will be affected by communication that values brevity over elegance and, increasingly, images over words.

“Technology is creating a culture that devalues language — our need for a sentence is less,” said Sam Gold, who won a Tony Award this spring for directing the musical “Fun Home.” “That really affects theater, because theater is an oral medium. It’s communicated through words.”

While he avoids social media in his life, Mr. Gold has incorporated digital communication onstage: This summer he directed “John,” the new work from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker, in which one character’s receipt of texts (which were never shared with the audience, but were signaled by the familiar iPhone tritone alert) was a significant plot element.

Theaters, of course, spend a lot of time warning audience members to shut off their cellphones, sometimes to no avail. But onstage, mobile communication has become so integral to contemporary theater that a Tony-winning sound designer, Robert Kaplowitz, collaborated with a programmer, Jay Konopka, to design an app that makes iPhones ring or beep, or both, on cue. Next: figuring out how to make phones light up on cue, so that they cast a lifelike glow on actors.

Playwrights have been exploring the perils of the Internet for years: “The Dying Gaul,” which ran Off Broadway in 1998, featured the use of a chat room for deception, as did “Closer,” which ran on Broadway in 1999.

And even before the advent of digital communication, theater makers wanted to incorporate the latest conversational technology into their work. Think of “Bells Are Ringing,” a popular 1956 musical about a woman who works at a telephone answering service, or “Bye Bye Birdie,” the Tony-winning best musical of 1961, which features a much-loved show tune, “The Telephone Hour,” in which land lines are vehicles for teenage gossip.

Many of today’s playwrights are raising explicit questions about new forms of communication. “The Nether,” a play by Jennifer Haley that has been produced over the last two years in Los Angeles, London and New York, depicts a world in which men are prosecuted for sex crimes committed by their online avatars. “Privacy,” a play by James Graham that ran in London last year, details the threats posed by government surveillance.

Some shows, acknowledging that theatergoers cannot let go of their own phones, are seeking to employ them in storytelling. At “Elements of Oz,” presented by the Builders Association at Montclair State University in New Jersey this fall, theatergoers downloaded an app that supplemented the onstage production. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Miranda July had audience members use pictures on their phones (then projected on a screen) for her performance piece “New Society.” And this summer’s Broadway run by Penn & Teller used the cellphones of audience members for an opening trick.

But the most striking new development is the normalization of onstage digital communication: the number of shows in which mobile devices and social media are not the subject of comment or criticism, but simply a contemporary reality.

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Using smartphones in “John.”

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“The phone is totally boring its way into the consciousness of playwrights, because we live with them stapled to our faces, and major emotional and life-altering information is being transmitted via these devices,” said Bray Poor, a sound designer who worked on Ms. Baker’s “John.”

“Especially when you’re dealing with younger playwrights — phones were part of their college lives, they are part of their romantic lives,” Mr. Poor said. “The phone is elemental, and so it will be in their plays.”

The examples are everywhere. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” was set partly in an online chat room for drug addicts, requiring characters to speak words they actually would have typed. Now she is working on a new musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” in which the commenters on a teenage girl’s online diary form the show’s ensemble.

In “The Humans,” a current Roundabout Theater Company production by Stephen Karam, a Thanksgiving dinner is punctuated by furtive cellphone calls from a young woman to her ex-girlfriend, trips to an area of the apartment where reception is adequate to check sports scores, joking among siblings about alarming articles electronically forwarded by their mother and a reading of a poignant email from their grandmother.

“Steve,” a comedic play by Mark Gerrard about two gay male couples and their ailing lesbian friend, projects texts, sexts and emoticons on a stage wall to allow the audience to see communications important to the plot in a production now being presented Off Broadway by the New Group. And “Dear Evan Hansen,” coming to Second Stage Theater Off Broadway in the spring after a run at Arena Stage in Washington, uses projections from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Gmail to evoke the cacophonous swirl of social media in a high school grappling with a teenager’s suicide.

“We didn’t set out to write a show about social media — in fact, it’s been our sense that when we see technology in theater, a lot of times it feels inauthentic to us,” said Benj Pasek, who wrote the “Hansen” show’s book and lyrics with Justin Paul. “But we wanted to layer it in, because it’s part of our everyday lives.”

The challenge of dramatizing digital communication exists in film, television and books as well, but is especially pronounced on the stage, where printed language (in projections or supertitles) is often viewed as less compelling than the spoken word.

Such technology is “appearing in a lot of plays already, but we as an industry still need to figure out how to make it truly theatrical,” said Paige Evans, the artistic director of LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s program for new playwrights, directors and designers.

Some writers have tried to dodge the issue. Jonathan Marc Sherman moved a play he is now writing, called “The Squeaky Wheel,” from 2008 to 2000 so his characters could read real estate listings in a newspaper instead of on an app. Laura Eason used a snowstorm in the first act of “Sex With Strangers,” which was produced last year at Second Stage, to disrupt wireless reception in a Michigan bed-and-breakfast so her characters would not be able to Google one another.

And even in “The Humans,” Mr. Karam set the action in a ground-floor/basement duplex with poor reception so that the bulk of the play could take place without digital interruptions.

“I was definitely interested in how, in a world in which we are so married to these forms of communication, do we behave when we’re shut off,” he said.



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