There's a point in Plank where Potpee is rescued from being adrift at sea. It's a big, loud scene, like a parade and a 21st century media event all rolled into one, and yesterday when we were rehearsing the scene the actors playing Mercedes and Thimble were improvising, running through the audience, that sort of thing, and then they pulled out their cell phones and began taking selfies with Potpee and tweeted, etc. (In a devised theater environment, it's a little hard to say exactly whose idea this was: It was probably one of those group-thought moments where Kira, Erika, and Sarah all collectively jumped on the idea at once.)
There has been a lot of discussion in the past week or so about cell phones in the theater. There was this guy who tried to plug his cell phone into an outlet in the set of Hand of God. Then Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone from an audience member who was texting and surfing throughout Show for Days. Social media went berserk. Of course it did, which is why Potpee loves her plank so much. There was discussion about this being the end of civilization as we know it. Progressives all were for how we're now doing theater for people who need to be connected 24/7 so we should just accept that. And then this came out, which frankly seems to be the most intelligent response so far.
Yes and no. Yes we have to accept that technology is a huge part of our world, but no, we don't want it to overwhelm or supplant the theatrical experience. We still want people to be engaged in what's happening on stage. I keep thinking of musicians being ignored in bars, or playing background in restaurants, and that is definitely not the direction I want my theater taking. Still, once Sarah and Erika started playing with their cell phones, it was an easy leap to start thinking of ways for the audience to join in, too, using technology to engage them further in the play.
We discussed this as a group, asking the actors how they felt about having to deal with the audience as an active participant of the play (they were totally stoked!) We considered what we would do if there was that one self-absorbed audience member who tried to hijack the show? We even considered if we should let the audience tweet during the entire show, wondering if that would keep them totally engaged in the show in order to keep up with their tweeting? In the end, we decided that during the rescue scene we would invite the audience to take pictures, selfies, tweet, post, whatever, making them part of the big rescue.
I feel so lucky to be working with Kira and the cast of Plank, people who are open to these kinds of ideas and are willing to roll with what's happening out in the world and inject it into our art. It's an experiment; we all acknowledged that it is, and what better place to experiment with something like this is with a small play in a fringe theater. Let's see how it goes with Plank, so we can see how we can make it work perhaps in a full-length play.