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Go To The Theater and Look at Your Phone

The digital-hybrid theater experience "Self" opens this weekend over at Strictly Designers. Binary vibes and virtual characters.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Opening this weekend at Strictly Designers’ South Bund studio, Self is an ambitious re-imagining of the theater experience that resonates far deeper than its relatively simple plotline. This coming-of-age story for the digital age raises issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust as it unfolds both on stage and on viewers’ tablets and smart phones. Far from gimmicky, the digital distraction inside a space where, ordinarily, all eyes ‘should’ be on stage echoes our own fraught relationship with technology.

The performance requires audiences to download an app loaded with videos and animations created especially for the show. Director Michael Beets explained: “In theory, it’s really simple. The application sends a signal to your device to play a specific video. It sounds straightforward, but it’s not: different phones have different processing speeds; some have better WiFi than others… synching across multiple devices is a real challenge.” They've worked through these challenges by talking with POS system developers and consulting with teams in India and Poland through

Multiple helping hands pitching in on an already multidimensional project naturally presents its own set of challenges. Long story short: wires got crossed, servers got switched and things changed. Like, yesterday. So no app this weekend. Instead, audience members are issued their own iPad on which to watch preloaded content. Having experienced Self both ways – on the shiny new tablet and on my own battered iPhone - I can honestly say that both work just fine. Phew.

Up on stage you’ve got 17-year old Nataleigh, played by Shanghai-newcomer Katy Mullins. Funny and sensitive, she’s a typical teenager negotiating the pressures of college, body image, friendships and most of all, boys. Doing little for Nat’s confidence is life-long pal Mia (Cecilia Garcia). I think we all knew a Mia at school: precocious, popular and more than a little promiscuous.

Similarly confined to the teeny-tiny dimensions of a smart phone or tablet screen is Aaron Garcia’s James – or JBoy99 as he’s known on Social, the imagined network and digital setting for our story. Something of a player, he flatters and cajoles, and for good or bad, coaxes Nataleigh out of her comfort zone…

Sharing the small screen with Mia and James is Nataleigh’s eccentric – if endearing – mother, played by Siobhan Hanrahan. Despite not being physically present, the online trio’s personalities and insecurities feel just as real as those of Nat. That these various strands of the same story are for the most part seamlessly intertwined is impressive, and speaks volumes for the talents of the tech team behind the project and the actors themselves – Mullins in particular.

That’s not to say it’s not, at times, confusing. During the second half in particular, I found myself torn between watching what was playing out on my iPad, and Mullins’ compelling stage-side performance. Director Beets, again: “Yeah, finding the balance was the hard part. Maybe some people will question whether this is a direction we want to go in terms of performance. I mean, we already look at our phones so much, we rely on them and I get the sense people are getting a bit tired of that – just look at all the conversations happening, ironically, online after Gary Turk’s Look Up went viral.”

The director continued, “But I believe it’s different for performance. I see it as a different media – like a film of sorts. It’s transmedia in the sense that it’s a story told across multiple platforms using multiple devices. Without one or the other, the story wouldn’t make sense.”

Co-written by Beets and Christy Shapiro, Self comes highly recommended. There are still a handful of tickets left for this weekend’s iPad performances, with the app available for phone download next week. A simple enough story, its meaning nonetheless extends beyond the confines of Strictly Designer’s compact theater, touching on themes of intimacy and trust in an unnervingly voyeuristic fashion. For full details, check the listing here.