The cyberworld’s a stage



Online role players discover dangers in new drama


Written by Joshua Scher

Directed by Claudia Zelevansky

Opens November 8

The Flea

41 White Street

212-352-3101, theflea.org

There are those who think of the Internet as an isolating influence, a virtual world that gets in the way of meaningful human interaction. But playwright Joshua Scher believes there is something far more complicated going on in cyberspace, and not all of it is bad. As he sees it, technology hasn’t destroyed community so much as reshaped our concepts of community and communication. “I think it’s interesting that technology allows us to become both more of ourselves and less of ourselves,” Scher said. “It puts front and center the question of: Who do I want to be in this new world?”

That’s precisely the question being put forth to both characters and audiences in “The Footage,” Scher’s new play that is poised to open at the Flea on Nov. 8. Directed by Claudia Zelevansky and featuring The Bats, The Flea’s resident acting ensemble, “The Footage” is a work that transfers cyberspace to the stage, along with all the immediacy and voyeurism typically associated with an online existence. “The Footage” was written specifically to envision 10 characters who are simultaneously romanced, entertained and even horrified by their online realities. Scher has set out to imagine a timely drama, questioning how we function and relate within a wholly virtual universe.

Eager to start the conversation, however, Scher has been careful to avoid passing judgment, as to whether this new way of doing things online is better or worse than the way the world functioned prior to 1990. “It’s the old mantra, right? That everything is changing about the way we interact with people. But I’m not making a final decision on this – how good or bad this is for us. I’m far more interested in looking at how this new technology has integrated itself into every single aspect of our lives.”

As played by The Bats, the 10 young characters in “The Footage” meet in the world of an MMORPG (otherwise known as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), and are compelled into action when they start viewing the macabre online footage of a woman who has been abducted. Clearly her abductor has posted this material, and it has found an audience among the anonymous masses visiting the web site. In one foul swoop, Scher has attempted to crystallize everything that is at once harrowing and haunting about the Internet – the way it can both exploit innocent people and give people entirely new ways of connecting with one another to achieve the common good.

Scher is well aware that this is unconventional material for the theater world. Most plays focus on only a few characters in intimate scenarios, whereas “The Footage” skews far more broadly. “Anyone from 15 to 35 will walk in and feel comfortable with the way we reference the online world. They’ll get the references. But even for those audience members who don’t know much about online gaming, the foundation is pretty easy to understand,” Scher said. “Maybe once upon a time, a story like this would have worked for only a small world of techies, but not anymore. When you have the Wall Street Journal doing a front page business story on Second Life and the lucrative business of creating avatars, it crosses that boundary as something we should all know about.”

Most excited about the play’s subject matter were The Bats, Scher said, all younger performers who could immediately relate to the tempo and tenor of the material. In fact, life started imitating the art as the production progressed. Brainstorming about how to promote the show, cast members considered posting original footage of “The Footage” on YouTube. One cast member even converted the Flea calendar and put it on Facebook, creating an automated invite list for upcoming Flea events. “I was friended on Facebook by all of the cast and then I received a Facebook invite to my own show…now that was pretty out there,” Scher said.

Staging this virtual story proved a challenge, not because of all the different media being used but because of the issues involved in working the audience into an online scenario. “There’s all this talk of voyeurism, but, as we always do in the theater, there’s a fourth wall that is and is not there,” Scher said, “And we wanted to bring the audience into this virtual reality, where could evoke the voyeur but also simultaneously implicate the voyeur.”

While Scher said he prefers to write stories of a more contained and intimate variety, what he loves about “The Footage” is the way it applies directly to the here and now, bringing to life the questions the challenges that a good many Americans are now struggling with. “The Footage” is a play about the passions and pitfalls of this modern lifestyle.

The more Scher researched these online communities during his writing process, the more he was encouraged about the relevance of his concept. He heard stories from friends about falling in love online and even about being dumped via text message or through such web sites as MySpace. “There was one rehearsal where we were working on how to stage a certain scene involving text messaging, and if it looked believable. I happened to turn around at one point and I saw the entire posse of actors lined up, everyone clicking away on their phones,” Scher said. “One was on an iPhone, another on a Blackberry, and all their thumbs were going at full speed. Everyone was looking down at their phone, and right there, they reinforced everything I was trying to talk about in the play.”