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Great Salt Lake Fringe goes virtual, stretching the boundaries of digital theater in the age of COVID-19

(Photo courtesy of Who's Louis?) The members of Who's Louis? — Dominic Zappala, left, Cece Otto, Monica Goff and Katryna Williams — in a scene from their interactive drama "I'm not playing," which will be available online as part of the Great Salt Lake Fringe festival, which runs July 30 to Aug. 9, 2020.

After five years of working on the cutting edge of theater and performance, Great Salt Lake Fringe festival is going digital for 2020 — as the cutting edge is infected with the coronavirus.

Among the dozens of works in the sixth annual festival, which runs from Thursday through Aug. 9, are pieces that use modern communication techniques, like video teleconferencing, as both medium and message.

“I was trying to think: Is there a story that we can tell where the platform or medium of Zoom or video chat is a part of the story?” said Salt Lake City actor and theater director Liz Whittaker, one of the dozens of creative minds presenting online-only works for Fringe.
Whittaker’s work “Risk of Exposure” dives into the emotions of being separated from others because of COVID-19. On the other hand, the theater troupe Who’s Louis? — based in New York, formed by four friends who met at the University of Utah — examines what happens when people are locked in together because of the pandemic in “I’m not playing.” Then there’s Brian Feldman, who has adapted his interactive, audience-written work “#txtshow,” originally a live in-theater work, to the Zoom platform.

‘Risk of Exposure’

(Photo courtesy of Liz Whittaker) Liz Whittaker, left, and Ali Lente perform a scene from "Risk of Exposure," a play performed digitally. It will be screened online as part of the Great Salt Lake Fringe festival, July 31 and Aug. 7, 2020.

Whittaker has seen Utah theater groups try play readings over Zoom, and feels the results haven’t been impressive.

“There are some challenges with being able to see all the actors at the same time,” Whittaker said. “Or, if you want two people in the same room at the same time, there’s some health risks associated with that.”

In looking for a story that incorporated the medium into the story, “I was thinking about how difficult it is to really connect sometimes with video chat or Zoom technology, but we keep trying to do it anyway,” Whittaker said. “There’s this interesting parallel with dating and romantic relationships. Sometimes it’s really difficult to connect, but we keep trying anyway. We do the best we can with what we have.”

For her story, Whittaker devised a fictional dating app, called Sparkmate, and imagined conversations — shot over Zoom — to simulate the one-on-one virtual dates.

Whittaker submitted this idea to Fringe, and the festival approved it. “Then I realized that I didn’t have a story,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t actually have an idea for a Fringe show. I had the idea for a setting.”

Whittaker spent a day brainstorming, writing out “brain maps” on a giant sheet of paper, trying to figure out her characters and their motivations. From that, she developed a script about a woman, Hero Lovelace (played by Whittaker), downloading the app and swiping through a host of potential matches, urged on by her roommate (played by Whittaker’s friend and roommate, Ali Lente).

“I ended up ending the script a full scene earlier than I planned to. As I was writing, I thought, ‘I think it’s done,’” Whittaker said. After she filmed it and edited a rough cut, she showed it to a friend, “who had this radical idea that ‘You should end it four minutes earlier than you did.’”

The cast rehearsed over Zoom, and often the recorded rehearsals were used as takes in the final product. The video footage was then made to look like a cellphone screen.

“The audience watching it is trapped inside the phone,” Whittaker said. “The audience doesn’t see anything that they wouldn’t be able to see looking outside the phone screen. That might feel limiting, but then again trying to connect with one another during a pandemic is also limiting.”

“Risk of Exposure” can be seen Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Aug. 7 at 9:45 p.m., accessible on the Fringe website. It has language and sexual content equivalent to an R movie rating. Admission is a suggested donation of $5, sent to Whittaker’s Venmo account, @Liz-Whit.

‘I’m not playing’

The characters in “I’m not playing” aren’t separated because of the pandemic. They are four roommates, sharing a small New York apartment. And two of them, Jeremy and Jess, have just broken up after a long relationship.

The piece is performed by the four members of Who’s Louis?, a New York theater group who all met as students at the U., and all share an apartment. They’re debuting “I’m not playing” at Great Salt Lake Fringe (where some of them performed in 2016), and at Minnesota Fringe Festival — one of the perks of creating work online.

“We were already looking at digital theater before the world basically shut down,” said troupe member Cece Otto. “Digital theater is something that has really become super-relevant now in this pandemic.”

Even in its infancy, digital theater has conventions — and the troupe’s constant question, Otto said, is “How do we break conventions? How do we make ourselves different and break from the norm?”

With “I’m not playing,” the group filmed the story from five different angles — one for each character, and an overview of the quartet. Dominic Zappala, who plays Jeremy, coded a website from scratch, allowing the viewer to choose whose point of view to follow.

“It’s all time-linear. It all happens within the 25 minutes of the piece,” said Monica Goff, who plays Jess.

The story takes place over a tense game night among the roommates, so one can follow any of the four characters — Jeremy or Jess, or Dev and Caitlyn, played by Otto and Katryna Williams, who offer unhelpful commentary.

“Depending on which camera you’re viewing, you’ll get different parts of the story,” Goff said. “If you see myself in Dev’s room, you’ll learn my side of the story. If you find Jeremy in his room, you’ll learn his side of the story. And you can go back and forth and watch all these things.”

By letting the audience member choose which character is the protagonist, Otto said, “we’re really trying to break down the audience/performer relationship. We’re not necessarily saying we’re taking down the fourth wall completely. We want them to come with us, instead of just sitting back and being able to view what we’re doing. We want it to kind of be a collaboration.”

“This is your journey to take, along with us,” Otto said. “There might not be a particular lens that we’re going through for the story itself, that gets reflected back to the audience. They get to be in charge of their point of view.”

“I’m not playing” can be accessed through the troupe’s website, whoslouis.com, from now through Aug. 9. It would probably merit an R rating, for strong language and smoking. A donation of $5 to the company is suggested.

‘#txtshow (on the internet)’

(Photo courtesy of Brian Feldman) Brian Feldman is the creator and performer of "#txtshow (on the internet)," a work written by the audience in real time, that will be part of the online-only Great Salt Lake Fringe festival, on Aug. 1 and Aug. 7, 2020.

Performance artist Brian Feldman doesn’t know what lines he’ll be reading when he performs “#txtshow (on the internet)” — because they haven’t been written yet.

That’s up to the audience, who will write their submissions in the text feature of the Zoom teleconferencing app. Feldman, playing a character named “txt” (pronounced “text”), will sit in the center screen and read the text feed, in the order it’s posted, for about 45 minutes.

It’s an online variation on a stage show he’s done since 2009, Feldman said from his apartment in Washington, D.C. — which is also the place from which he’ll moderate his Great Salt Lake Fringe performance.

“Doing this show, it’s made me say some of the funniest things I’ve said in my life, but it’s definitely made me say the most horrible things,” Feldman said. “When you have that veil of anonymity, it really gives people free rein to reach into their worst impulses, or at least push the boundaries.”

The show has “gone into directions that no one can really anticipate, and certainly not myself,” Feldman said. In one recent performance, “there was a recurring thread about tap dancers,” he said. “It ended up coming to a head with a big tap-dancing finale.”

When he’s performed the show live — he now calls that version “#txtshow IRL” — Feldman would give audience members log-ins to dedicated Twitter accounts he created. Early this year, Twitter cracked down on excess accounts, and Feldman’s 80 accounts were suspended.

“The Zoom chat function works just as well, if not better,” he said. There is still anonymity, but “on Zoom, I can see you, and you can see each other. … The only people writing the script are in the space with us.”

The online show, Feldman said, creates a temporary sense of community — which is at the heart of live theater.

“This is a chance to really connect and share, and have some connection in this time of social distancing,” he said.

“#txtshow (on the internet)” will be performed Saturday at 9:30 p.m. and Aug. 7 at 9 p.m. An RSVP is required. Admission is free, though Feldman will accept donations over Venmo, Zelle, PayPal and CashApp.

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