The lights went out. I settled into my seat, drink in hand, anticipation building for the start of the show. But rather than watching the stage lights go up on, I clicked on a Zoom link. Welcome to theatre in the age of a pandemic, where health and safety protocols have forced theatres to drastically alter how they operate, from reducing seating to, like the Neo-Futurists, going completely virtual.
Before attending, I had heard of their show The Infinite Wrench before, but had never experienced it in real life. Essentially, they attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Each play is about two minutes long, and the audience chooses the order in which the plays are performed. Digitally, the show is essentially the same, with the exception of audience choice. The show was streamed on YouTube, with each clip lasting around two minutes before autoplaying to the next.
I came into the viewing pretty skeptical, of both The Infinite Wrench’s overall concept and its new virtual format. As far as I was concerned, theatre is supposed to be live and in-person. The performers should be so close you can hear their breathing, see their sheen under the stage lights and see their every move, even the unintended ones. I held the belief that theatre is supposed to be consumed surrounded by fellow audience members in uncomfortable seats and low lighting, where the person in the row in front of you won’t turn off their phone. Instead, I spent 60 minutes watching a play from the comfort of my dorm room, and I was unexpectedly entranced.
The best thing about this digital Infinite Wrench is that it still felt like theatre. Was it just a taping of the exact same play as if they had a live audience? No. They made use of editing, animation, PowerPoints and other tools that wouldn't work in live theatre without making it feel like a series of short films. Rather, each play was a piece of theatre reimagined. Audience participation was still present, just reimagined. One play, for example, encouraged viewers to howl and scream to cover up curse words. Another asked us to text a number to vote for favorite costumes.
Above and beyond all this, the show still moved me the way only theatre can. At different points I was shocked, terrified, laughing out loud, and miserable. This show sent myself and the rest of the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
While Zooming with some cast members after the show, Northwestern students and faculty who were in the audience got to talking about the advantages of this new online format. One that stood out is the increased accessibility of the show. In its new virtual format, The Infinite Wrench is available for lower prices, people can watch from anywhere, which opens it up to an international audience, and the show is now captioned, which improves accessibility to deaf and hard of hearing communities. Could this be the future of theatre? Will having online options be more widespread even when we’re back to “normal?” Personally, I would welcome this change. Theatre should be for everyone.
Check out the Neo-Futurists’ website here for more information on their shows and how you can support them during this difficult time for the arts.
*Thumbnail courtesy of the Neo-Futurists' website.