Position of the speakers may affect the quality of their operation
It all started when I submitted a Facebook friend request to Elizabeth Watson. Minutes after accepting, she sent me a note wishing me and my wife a happy belated Valentine's Day. Since then, I've followed this London resident and her Austin-based sweetheart, Ryan Peterson, as they've eyed each other's profile pictures, swapped YouTube videos, and traded the kind of lovey-dovey messages that only people in the early throes of romance proclaim in public, in anticipation of a party they're throwing with her in the UK and him in the States, where both sides communicate in real time via Skype.
But here's the thing: Elizabeth Watson isn't really someone I know. In point of fact, she doesn't exist – and neither does her Lone Star boyfriend or their long-distance dalliance. They are the fictional protagonists of You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London/You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas, a work of theatre that hauls the ancient art form into the Age of Connectivity with videoconferencing technology and social networking. In March, small audiences in Austin and London – only 20 people per location for each show – will be able to interact simultaneously with these characters and one another through a live video feed, but before that, they can immerse themselves in the characters and their backstory by friending them on Facebook. In the words of Beth Burns, co-creator of the piece and artistic director of the Hidden Room, "The show begins now."
"I want to examine the nature of what makes a relationship real," says Burns. The couple in this show is a couple "because of the Internet. They've met in person. He's visited her, she's visited him, but the vast majority of their relationship take place via Skype. So does that make it a real relationship or not? I'm collaborating with somebody I met through the friend of a friend, and we talked via Skype. Does that make our [working] relationship any less real? How do you define a relationship? When I go out of town, I tell my daughter, 'Just because you can't see me doesn't mean I'm not here and doesn't mean I don't love you.' We're forcing an audience to engage in these relationships whether they like it or not."
To realize this trans-Atlantic project, Burns needed a counterpart on the other side of the Big Pond and found one in Mimi Poskitt, co-artistic director of Look Left Look Right, a London theatre company that does documentary work. But though the project's premise is rooted in electronic connections, Burns learned early on that "it's very hard to have a good working relationship without looking somebody in the eye." So she and local actor Judd Farris – the project's Ryan – jetted to London for a week so the collaborators could all be in the same room and develop a level of trust with one another, and so Farris and English actress Rachel Watkinson, aka Elizabeth, could feel comfortable enough with each other "to really be vulnerable." At famed London theatre the Roundhouse, Burns led improv workshops with everyone, since the hourlong performance involves mostly guided improvisation with the audience, who play the friends of the lovers.
However, you don't have to be in the room with either Ryan or Elizabeth to be part of the audience for You Wouldn't Know Her/Him .... The performances will be live-streamed at www.roundhouse.org.uk, and questions may be submitted during the shows by Twitter – #TexasLondon – or Facebook chat.
"We always talk about community-building and those sorts of buzz words. Well, why does the community have to be limited to one city when we have something like Skype? When we learn so much from new artists that come into the fold, why are we limited to just the people we're lucky enough to live with or who happen to come into town for a minute? I'm looking at this as worldwide community-building when it comes to the arts."
You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas/You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London runs March 5-13, Saturdays & Sundays, 2pm, at the East Village Lofts, 1200 E. 11th. For reservations, call 310/243-6426.