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Do I need to hear other audience members on Zoom?


"Twentieth-century proposals for reform in the theatre which sought to trouble the presumed passivity of the spectator were based upon a set of long-established- but problematic and redundant- associations and oppositions, namely 'the equivalence of theatre and community, of seeing and passivity, of externality and separation, of mediation and simulacrum; the opposition of collective and individual, image and living reality, activity and passivity, self-possession and alienation.'" notes on a lecture by philosopher Jacques Rancière from Theatre & Audience by Helen Freshwater

Though Rancière and Freshwater may be correct in calling innovations which preemptively strike against the proverbial passivity of contemporary audiences "twentieth-century proposals", these assumptions and the combative language around them have kept their tentacles extended well into the twenty-first century. Contemporary playwrights insert cringe-inducing, witless, in-character prologues admonishing us to silence our phones, supercilious artistic directors wink at us to "sit forward and enjoy the performance", and that one guy with his MFA can't stop telling you about how Shakespeare's audiences would have actively engaged in the performance. After registering for a performance by Zoom Theatre, you get an automated email which explains that you will be able to be heard by the actors and other audience members during this virtual performance. This is notable because most performances on Zoom completely keep the actors in a vacuum away from audience responses and audiences in a vacuum away from collective responses as a whole. This isolated consumption of media has been combatted by chat functions on YouTube Premiere, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, or (formerly) Netflix's Teleparty, in which audience members can variously type comments or react via click.

In a nearly 15 minute curtain speech (with virtual curtains flickering in the background) by artistic director Patrick Nim, every decision in the evening's presentation is justified as if an apology is in order (but you never asked for an apology, you just wanted to see a show). There is an embodiment of discord as Nim explains the ideas behind allowing the actors to hear the audiences' authentic responses in real time and then launches into a cavalcade of "suggestions" (rules) for the performance. Perhaps his variation on a theme is transformative for performers or artists involved, but I can only say that, as an audience member, I did not gain enough from a few echoing laugh-track responses to warrant a 15 minute directive on what I can and cannot do in my apartment. I miss live, in-person theatre as much as the next homosexual with a liberal arts degree, but I do not want to romanticize the idea of being in a darkened space where I cannot eat but I can hear some guy coughing. I feel that Zoom theatre as a form invites my seeing sans immediate reaction (which is not inherently a passive act) but Zoom Theatre asks me to fork over my responses without clarifying what I get out of that in return. I believe the idea has practical applications and benefits, I just did not see any of them in action.

Form aside: I saw COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN 5 BETTIES; IN ESSENCE, A QUEER AND OCCASIONALLY HAZARDOUS EXPLORATION; DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL AND YOU READ ABOUT SHACKLETON AND HOW HE EXPLORED THE ANTARCTIC?; IMAGINE THE ANTARCTIC AS A PUSSY AND IT'S SORT OF LIKE THAT by Jen Silverman. The title is a perfect reflection of the play- it's kind of a lazy joke without a punchline, cueing me in that I'm supposed to laugh because I know who Ernest Shackleton is but the only reason he is mentioned is because this play is exploring something, which is not in and of itself really a joke. Everything about Silverman feels like an attempt at being theatre's bad girl playwright (and maybe she is the token bad girl playwright of the regional theatres that flirt the line between non-profit and commercial organization). Even though she has called the show an "exploration" and both artistic director and director of this production use words like "experiment" and "pioneer", there doesn't seem to be anything exploratory about this play. I don't think that there was anything exploratory about this play at its 2016 premiere either.

If one wanted to explore the dynamics of a group of women and femme-presenting people with muddied romantic connections and disparities of socio-economic status coming together to stage an amateur piece of theatre, Maria Irene Fornes already did it with Fefu and her Friends. If one wanted to take that same group but amplify their intricate relationships through a lens focused on race, Cheryl Dunye already did it with The Potluck and the Passion. Eve Ensler padded the landing on theatre-goers' ears of mentions of vaginas, the In-yer-face theatre of the 90s opened up conversations about authentic rage, and it seems that the only new device brought to the table by Silverman is an exploration of this group in the fantastical instance of all being named 'Betty'. Even that never reaches the farcical climax which the circumstances provide. We are left with a simply serviceable text which odd-couples different pairings of people named Betty in often ridiculous (though never quite ridiculous enough to be really whimsical) situations, and then segues into a theatrical narrative which allows Silverman to punch at her own industry with tired jokes about unpaid internships and warmup games. The arch smacks of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ironically parodying the mechanicals' Pyramus and Thisbe performance in the eleventh hour. Just as with most productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the time the wall delivers a monologue, I have sustained my polite attempt at laughter for long enough to have entirely checked out. By the time we reached the performance within the performance, I question if anyone was still chortling over a mispronunciation of "theatre" (although Tatiana Isabel Gil as Betty 3 got her money's worth from that gag) or clutching their pearls over mentions of "pussy". Rather than explore nuance in a memorable way, monologues act as convenient, stand-alone pin cushions for jokes the casting director laughs at just to ease the awkward silences and scenes lumber through quasi-realistic chatter without fully capturing the imagination.

Director Jane Reagan lands this text in that space directors seem to be landing texts in these days. Without total say over the world of the show, we get a sense of her style through well-placed shifts in camera angle, extremities in range of proximity, delightful (if superfluous) model trucks, and sweetly dour puppets. The idea of the trucks could have been expanded to include other miniature representations of the characters' worlds, which in turn could have elevated this play to a more charming level of silliness, but there are limits to what can be done right now. As is, I felt like this production had one foot firmly planted as Jane Reagan's Collective Rage and another was left fumbling through a trunk of directorial exercises, trying to insert an unnecessary moment of choreography and an even-less-necessary preshow instead of servicing the narrative. Zoom theatre is difficult for directors, when too often the choice must be made to insert extraneous creations to keep from going temporarily obsolete.

The cast is spot-on, and valiantly fights to keep audiences invested for the duration of the piece. Overall, they land with Reagan, one foot in her zany world, another still mining Silverman's script for the depth and nuance that has to be there... right? Meredith Ham as Betty 1 gives all of the faces of the best front-facing camera comedians, raising her Betty to Megan Stalter levels of parody. Olivia Dumaine lends Betty 2 a Lady Aberlin charm and gently familiar voice that seems hard to place until we see her with a puppet evocative of Daniel Striped Tiger. Tatiana Isabel Gil sustains herculean levels of energy as Betty 3 which keep her work as comic relief renewed in their freshness. Cortunay Minor is understated as Betty 4, an energy which resonates particularly well with scenes opposite Gil- their opposition of tactics feels electric. Krystal Glover infuses Betty 5 (a character who may arguably most-readily find themselves in a play about femme rage) with sunshine that neither diminishes nor apologizes for the rage Betty 5 expresses.

Collective Rage has run its course. Check out more upcoming programming from Zoom Theatre here.

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From This Author Andrew Child