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What is theater?
Philly Fringe 2021: Brian Feldman Projects presents #txtshow (on the internet)
The format of Brian Feldman’s (digitally) globetrotting theater creation #txtshow (on the internet), one of many streaming offerings in this year’s Fringe, is simple. Feldman is txt (“text”), he’s in one of the squares on your Zoom screen, and you, the audience, decide what he says. The complicated part comes afterwards, when you try to figure out if this show, and maybe the pandemic itself, has changed the definition of theater.
Consider the “know before you go” email from FringeArts: “This LIVE* online theater show relies on a high level of audience interaction. Audience members must keep their camera and microphone on the entire time they are in the show.” Why does “LIVE” get an asterisk? Because, the preshow missive goes on, “If it’s not live, it’s not theater.”
That’s a provocative statement, after an entire season in which companies scrambled to adapt their lineup for us to consume onscreen, some livestreamed and some prerecorded. Is #txtshow, which replaces a script with whatever the viewers type into the chat, theater because it’s live? Versus, say, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s fall 2020 production of acclaimed playwright Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, which filmed each actor remotely and presented an integrated recording for audiences at home?
Theater: live or not?
Of all the theater companies in town, the Wilma perhaps leaned most into theater packaged as film. While other companies filmed productions in their traditional place, such as Irish Heritage Theatre’s The Holy Ground, captured at Plays and Players and streamed on demand, the Wilma took its Heroes of the Fourth Turning to a real-life Poconos backyard firepit. The hyperrealistic result was a play on film, sometimes indistinguishable from the experience of watching a movie.
Director Morgan Green called the Wilma’s production of James Ijames’s transfixing and uplifting Fat Ham “a one-take film” attempting to “retain the feeling of the continuous real-time storytelling of the play.” It was absorbing and dynamic, especially as a real setting sun gilded the actors.
Theatre Exile leaned successfully into shows that weren’t only plays put on film, but productions adapted so well for the digital viewer that it was hard to imagine them onstage. D-Pad’s dialogue happened between characters on video calls (versus the Zoom-screen style of The Wolves, which required a much more effortful suspension of disbelief), and we watched a lot of The Sin Eaters as if we were inside the protagonist’s computer screen while she was at work. Last year’s Philly Fringe offering from Die-Cast, Temporary Occupancy, took a similar tack, with footage conceived as a mix of Zoom calls, FaceTime, and video the characters make themselves.
But by the #txtshow standard, are these shows theater?
Better keep watching
As #txtshow screen manager Jen Cleary reminded the audience before the performance of the Philly Fringe incarnation I attended, no actor likes to perform into a void—the show instructions told participants to keep their camera and mic on for the duration, or be removed from the stream. And that raises the question of whether “theater” requires not just the viewer, but the performer’s perception of the viewer.
The #txtshow performance I caught included demands for views of dogs, cheesesteak recommendations, rants about audience participation, and hilarity at the expense of one attendee whose screen froze—all typed by the guffawing audience and rendered out loud in real time by Feldman, an increasingly hectic reverse amanuensis of our collective stream of consciousness. All while he watched us watching him.
So what is theater? A live, reciprocal experience, scripted by anyone, in any format, shared by the creator and an audience of any size, that takes place in any space, or no space at all, or the digital bridge between many spaces? As our artists and audiences head into another pandemic winter, we’re going to keep finding out.
What, When, Where
#txtshow (on the internet). Written by the audience, created by Brian Feldman. $12. Livestreaming performances through September 27, 2021. (215) 413-1318 or Fringearts.com.
This performance is not captioned.
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