A new play opens next week, where the lead actress is onstage in Philadelphia and her co-star is in London. The performers play off each other through Skype.
The story is about a married couple — both scientists — in a not-so-distant future where the Earth is falling apart.
Carys (Emma Gibson) is in Philadelphia, working for a large technology corporation to create new species of animals to bolster the world’s quickly-diminishing ecology. Michael (Harry Smith) is in London working to preserve the world’s native species.
They are separated by scientific ideology, and an ocean. Their connection through Skype is tentative, never sharing the same physical space, and their relationship is deteriorating.
“Perfect Blue” is a collaboration between two small theater companies — Tiny Dynamite in Philadelphia, in London a company called Pursued By A Bear. Last year the play toured in small theaters through southern England — often with spotty Wi-Fi access — with the husband in the theater and the wife on Skype.
For the Philadelphia the play has been flipped, re-written from the perspective of the wife on stage with the husband beaming in from abroad. The unreliability of the Skype connection heightens the tension on stage.
“We’ve seen this in awkward CNN interviews – where there’s a question asked and an unnatural long pause before the answer can come,” said director David O’Connor. “The rhythm constantly changes just a little bit in the performance as the density of what’s being transmitted slows things down.”
This certainly isn’t the first time a play features characters talking to each other through video technology. What’s unusual is that they are not faking the trans-Atlantic connection. It would have been much easier if one character was simply performing for a video camera backstage.
“I’m in Dalston, in East London. I’m in the kitchen of beautiful, huge Victorian house,” said Smith, a native Briton now living in South Philadelphia. He flew to London to play the part of Michael.
“Perhaps the most exciting thing about this production, for me, is the fact that the audience will know that I’m Skyping in live from 3000 miles away,” he said. “That puts them in a complicit situation — their connection with me and the risk of it all falling out.”
Audiences will be informed in advance of the tricky staging involved in connecting the actors. The playbill, stage announcements, and advanced publicity will make plain that Smith is, indeed, live in London.
Audiences will walk the technology tightrope along with the actors. Glitches will be expected, even familiar.
“To have a relationship with someone long-distance is not easy,” said Gibson. “That effects so many of our audiences. I know friend whose husbands work in a different country and communicate with their kids at night through Skype and Facetime. That’s become more of a norm, sadly.”
Gibson and Smith are rehearsing how to improvise if and when the Skype connection fails during a performance. They say that is part and parcel of the excitement of live theater.