ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When COVID-19 shut down theaters across the country, some companies started experimenting - streaming new plays, doing concerts with Broadway stars. Well, tonight, one theater is trying something really new - a production with no actors happening within a video game. From member station WNYC, Jennifer Vanasco reports.
JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: A couple months into the pandemic, the New York Theatre Workshop had an idea. Their season was canceled.
JEREMY BLOCKER: We were like, OK, what are we going to do now?
VANASCO: Jeremy Blocker is managing director. And he says, instead, they gave the money to 27 theater artists and told them to think about what theater could be now that we can't squeeze 200 people into a room.
BLOCKER: What does it mean in a virtual space to build community? And folks have come back with some crazy, exciting ideas.
VANASCO: One of those people is playwright Celine Song. She's making an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's drama "The Seagull" within the video game Sims 4. And she's going to stream the whole thing live on Twitch.
CELINE SONG: People in theater - our relationship to, like, a live event is sort of this in-person - that kind of live event. But then for most of the world - and a lot of young people - the idea of something that is live often shows up in the shape of, like, a livestream of some of their favorite, like, gaming streamers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VANASCO: At a tech rehearsal, staff watched on Twitch and gave suggestions over chat, as Song fiddled with the game's volume.
SONG: Is it too loud? Is any part of this too loud?
VANASCO: This production is basically a one-woman show with no actors and no script. But Song chooses traits within the video game - like, is someone cheerful? Are they motivated by money? Do they slouch? And then the Sims take it from there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character, unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character, unintelligible).
VANASCO: At one point, Song puts two characters from the play in a room - the older, more bitter Arkadina - she's wearing a turban - together with an ingenue, Nina. Arkadina is being really mean.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Look at this. Oh, my God. We're going to have a full fight, aren't we? Can't wait.
VANASCO: It's a melee. A cloud of smoke hides the punches and hair-pulling, as if they're wrestling down in the dirt.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME CHARACTERS FIGHTING)
VANASCO: That doesn't actually happen in Chekhov, but Song doesn't have control over every second of the action in The Sims. In a way, it is like live theater. You can put everything into place, but then you just have to see how it goes. Song chose "The Seagull" partly because it's about the struggle to make new forms of theater. And this is a new form, certainly. But is it theater?
Sarah Bay-Cheng is dean and professor of theater at York University in Toronto. She says that's the wrong question.
SARAY BAY-CHENG: I'll be the first to say I miss going to live theater events a lot. I really do. But I also think there's a tremendous amount of opportunity for change and innovation right now that's really exciting.
VANASCO: When "The Seagull" premiered in October 1896 in St. Petersburg, Russia, it was so different that audiences hissed. And Jeremy Blocker says maybe people will react the same way.
BLOCKER: Maybe that's going to be The Sims. It's going to be so cool - or maybe we're going to walk away and be like, well, that was fun, but we're never doing that again.
SONG: This might be a spectacular failure, but I know that also there are going to be parts of it that's going to feel like such spectacular successes. And that's going to feel really amazing.
VANASCO: They say it's this kind of reimagining that will help theater survive and maybe become something new.
For NPR, this is Jennifer Vanasco in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH FOSSILS' "SAINT IVY")
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