In A 'Continuous City,' A Meditation On Connection A new theatrical production ponders how technologies designed to bring us closer can create greater distances between us.
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In A 'Continuous City,' A Meditation On Connection

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In A 'Continuous City,' A Meditation On Connection

In A 'Continuous City,' A Meditation On Connection

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. If Romeo could have sent Juliet a text message, would their story have been just a romance and not a tragedy? Themes of communication and human connection have been a mainstay of drama for centuries. Well, now a contemporary theater company is using cutting-edge technology to illustrate that even with all our high-tech gadgets, people still yearn for basic human contact. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the latest production from The Builders Association.

LAURA SYDELL: "Continuous City" is a play about communication and connection in a wired world. Central to the plot is a company called Xubu which makes video phones. JV, the company's CEO, tells the audience that this phone is for people who really want to be in touch.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Unidentified Man: (As JV) People who are scattered all over the world, uprooted without choice, drawn to expanding cities. These are people who need to stay connected with their families in this unstable world. So where does that lead us? Xubu, of course, Xubu.

SYDELL: But the new technology doesn't guard against old problems like unrequited love. JV is dating several women. None of them appear on stage. We only see their faces on hanging video screens. One of them gets a real letdown when she announces plans to come visit him in person.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Unidentified Man: (As JV) But it's just that it's kind of a big commitment, you know?

Unidentified Woman: What is?

Unidentified Man: Being in the same city.

Unidentified Woman: That's a big commitment?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: In what way?

Unidentified Man: Well, I mean so much can go wrong. You know, I mean there's expectations, and then this is just as good, right? Probably better like this?

SYDELL: Maybe better for JV, but it's a bit harder on Mike Devries. Devries works for JV, and he travels the world trying to sell Xubu. He uses it to communicate with his daughter, Sam.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Ms. OLIVIA TIMOTHEE: (As Sam) When are you coming home?

SYDELL: Devries is on an airplane getting ready to take off. Sam holds up a book and asks her father to read to her.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Mr. HARRY SINCLAIR: (As Mike Devries) Push it a little closer. Yeah, sorry. Look, I've got to go. I've really got to go.

Ms. TIMOTHEE: (As Sam) I want a story.

Mr. SINCLAIR: I'm going to call you.

SYDELL: The intimacy promised by the technology sometimes seems like a mirage.

Mr. SINCLAIR: At first, you feel you're in touch with someone you love, and then you feel almost deceived by the technology because it can be a hollow feeling.

SYDELL: Harry Sinclair plays Devries, and he collaborated on writing the show. Sinclair says his character believes deeply in the promise of this technology, but he's conflicted about it.

Mr. SINCLAIR: Whether it's an altruistic idea to try to empower people so that they can connect more or whether it's just simply a profit-making idea to capture this vast new market in the developing world that hasn't - it's just coming online.

SYDELL: The director of "Continuous City" and the play's co-writer Marianne Weems has a more positive take. Weems uses video chat to communicate with her goddaughter.

Ms. MARIANNE WEENS (Co-writer, Director, "Continuous City"): It's incredibly important to me because that's how I get to see her, and she likes to chat to me because she can see me on the computer.

SYDELL: Weems also heard a story from a friend about a 12-year-old he calls the Blackberry boy. His father is always traveling for work, so they communicate via Blackberry and send text messages to each other 20 times or more a day.

Ms. WEENS: It's a different kind of intense communication because it's not just a father who comes home at the end of a long day and doesn't have much to say. He knows where his son is. His son is telling him, you know, how he's feeling throughout the day, and I think that is a sort of more optimistic idea about how this can make new ways to sustain proximity and intimacy.

SYDELL: Over the course of the play, there are moments of real connection and sweetness between father and daughter. While he's in Guadalajara, he takes his video phone to a busy market. He and his daughter go on a virtual shopping tour.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Mr. SINCLAIR: (As Mike Devries) Hey, look at that.

Ms. TIMOTHEE: (As Sam) I want one of those.

Mr. SINCLAIR: The hat or the old guy? I'm just kidding. Hey, look who we have here.

SYDELL: A group of children wave at the video phone camera.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Mr. SINCLAIR: (As Mike Devries) Ola.


SYDELL: "Continuous City" is one of many projects done by Marianne Weems and her theater company, The Builders Association. They incorporate new technologies into their productions, but that isn't what makes them unique, says Shannon Jackson, chair of the theater department at UC Berkeley.

Ms. SHANNON JACKSON (Theater Department, University of California, Berkeley): They interrogate new technologies through that use, and I think that that is actually far more rare to both make use of the technologies but also to pose a question about the technologies.

SYDELL: Previous productions of The Builders Association include a show that examined the contradictions between our real world personality and our online identity. It also raised questions about privacy. Another show, "Aladeen," took the audience inside call centers in India. It investigated the connections between people who work in Bangalore and the customers they speak with in London and the US.

Ms. JACKSON: They're always asking us to think about what it is to live in the age of globalization and how technology both creates, you know, spaces of new connection as well as spaces for new alienation within that global landscape.

SYDELL: In "Aladeen," the call center employees were taught the accents and culture of the people in the US in order to pass as one of them. In both "Aladeen" and "Continuous City," there is a sense that our identities are becoming confused. It's an idea that is expressed in the landscape of "Continuous City."

In one scene, Mike Devries manages to get on the wrong airplane. Neither he nor his boss are sure where he's landed.

(Soundbite of play "Continuous City")

Unidentified Man: (As JV) What? You're in Paris?

Mr. SINCLAIR: (As Mike Devries) No, I'm not in Paris. Why would I be in Paris?

Unidentified Man: Then why is there a rickshaw going past the Eiffel Tower?

SYDELL: Cultural symbols are increasingly shared around the world through the connections we make in cyberspace, says director Marianne Weems.

Ms. WEEMS: That idea of this kind of global whirlwind where identities are blurred and cities borrow the icons of other cities was a really visual part of the show and the expression of a continuous city.

SYDEL: Being that "Continuous City" is an old-fashioned play, it can only be seen in one city at a time. The show opens next week in San Francisco and travels later this month to New York City. Laura Sydell, NPR News San Francisco.

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