If you’ve ever taken a CPR class, you were probably told that you could time your chest compressions to the classic Bee Gees 1977 disco anthem, “Staying Alive.” Compressing on the downbeat could literally save a life. It’s fitting, then, that the new virtual live theater production from 1812 Productions, The Way I Walk, takes its title from the first line of the song. Because after 14 months of living almost wholly behind screens, the production infuses new life into Zoom meetings.
Inside the breakout room
With every in-person event in the world seemingly canceled over the past year, there’s been a scramble to move events online. Some have been more successful than others. The Way I Walk takes place during one of those suddenly online events: a staff retreat. The whole purpose of this sort of event—at least, pre-pandemic—was to bring an entire organization together so colleagues could meet in person, work toward common goals, and (with a decent budget) eat entirely too much food from the lunch buffet. It’s the sort of thing that’s only supposed to work if everyone can be there, in the same room.
To try to simulate the kinds of small-group conversations that usually happen as part of the larger gatherings, the unnamed company hosting the retreat in The Way I Walk has divided its entire team into randomly assigned groups, which will convene in breakout rooms. The four people assigned to this particular room are Bi (Bi Jean Ngo), Jen (Jennifer Childs), Melanie (Melanie Cotton), and Tanaquil (Tanaquil Márquez)—four women who serve very different roles in the company and have very different levels of experience and very, very different personalities. Aside from the fact that they are playing characters with their own names, we wonder just how much of themselves each performer put into their roles, because they feel like exaggerated-but-authentic versions of real-life people.
The truth about the game
The four women make awkward small-talk until they are instructed by Barb (voiced by MB Scallen) and her assistant Toby (Thomas E. Shotkin) that to better get to know each other, they will all be playing a game called “The Way I Walk.” It sounds like it’s going to be one of those painful ice breakers you always have to do at this sort of thing, made even more painful in the pandemic era because you are looking at your own face while it’s happening.
The boardgame, invented for the play, is one part The Game of Life, one part Lee Strasberg’s Method. The rules are straightforward enough, but the gameplay is oddly, deeply personal, and never clear if it’s meant to be competitive or collaborative—it seems to be at once both and neither. The women do get to know each other a little better and let their guards down.
By the time the women reach what they think is the end of the game, there’s a twist: they are, in fact, still playing. This could be a spoiler except that if you’ve ever seen a play by Sartre or Beckett you know that “the game,” such as it is, is never really over. There may be a point to make about competition versus collaboration for women in the workplace, but you don’t have to think that hard to enjoy the conclusions these characters come to in order to end the game on their own terms.
Virtual, done right
The Way I Walk is produced mostly live, with some obviously prerecorded parts spliced in, in which we meet the characters’ game token alter-egos and see them engage in role-play. Almost as if to dare the audience to question whether the play was, in fact, streamed live, Shotkin (who’s the stage manager as well as voicing the unseen Toby) spends a few minutes at the beginning of the show asking the audience for improv-style suggestions, which are then incorporated into the performance.
Until now, I can honestly say that every livestreamed play I’ve seen during this period of quarantine was disappointing, and it was only the prerecorded productions, which permit post-production perfecting (say that three times fast!), that were even remotely worth seeing. The Way I Walk seems to be the exception that proves the rule: the technology worked, cues were timed correctly, the actors were well-lit and their microphones were balanced. It was like a culmination of everything we have all learned about videoconferencing over the last year, only better.
And it made the prospect of a few more months staring at Zoom a lot less daunting.
Image description: a close-up photo of a board game with twisted colorful paths, and above it, four squares that each have one actor’s face in them: Tanaquil Márquez, Bi Jean Ngo, Jennifer Childs, and Melanie Cotton.
What, When, Where
The Way I Walk. Created and performed by Bi Jean Ngo, Jennifer Childs, Melanie Cotton, and Tanaquil Márquez. Performances streaming live through May 23, 2021. 1812productions.org.
English and Spanish captioning will be available at select performances. Please contact [email protected] for more info.