8 Things to Understand About Digital Theater Now, According to Jared Mezzocchi

Jared Mezzocchi is a pioneer in digital theater, and probably its most quoted evangelist, an Obie winning theater artist who works as a multimedia designer, director, playwright, performer, professor and soon to be author.  His most noted success during the pandemic shutdown was the design of the online play Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, but that was just one of maybe fifty shows he designed. Post shutdown, “Section 230,” his play on the Internet about the history of the Internet,  was presented live in November, launching URHERE, the new digital platform and portal from HERE Arts Center; the play is still available on demand there.

 Yesterday he was the guest of the first “Stellar Salon,” named after the digital platform founded by Jim McCarthy, who was the host for this hour-long online gathering of seven of us – playwrights, producers, dramaturg, critic – all of whom participated in a wide-ranging conversation about digital theater.  I’ve extracted and edited some of the comments Jared made during the conversation, and added some of his previous remarks, to patch together not exactly Jared Mezzocchi’s Digital Theater Manifesto, but some of his observations (with a few of the other participants’ here and there.)

Above: Jared Mezzocchi in his Zoom box during the online Stellar Salon. Below, some of the digital theater discussed. Clockwise from top left: A scene from Mezzocchi’s “Section 230,” Pulitzer finalist “Circle Jerk,” Mezzocchi in his play “Someone Else’s House,” Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy,” Caryl Churchill’s “What If If Only,”

Digital theater lives on, as an option, or an adjunct; it was never intended as a replacement.

 “I’m baffled that so many people hear ‘digital performance is a kind of theater’ as ‘digital theater will replace in-person theater.’
“I am relieved that in-person theater is back. The people who are looking at digital theater now are the people who actually are intrigued by it, as opposed to feeling it’s being forced on them.”

Digital theater is in an experimental phase.

“We don’t know what the thing is yet, so can we just accept that what we’re producing is imperfect? I call what I produce an ‘experiment’ rather than a product or a production, because if you say it’s an experiment, people can say ‘oh, cool, I wonder if it’ll work,’ and that’s exciting. But if you say it’s a production, people will say ‘I hope it’s good.’”

Digital theater encompasses many variations, not yet clearly defined

“Much like the terms ‘in the round,’ ‘proscenium,’ ‘thrust stages,’ we need to develop a word bank that identifies different kinds of digital theater – ‘livestream,’ ‘on demand,’ ‘digital native.’ We could call it all digital theater, and I think that the digital marketplace should embody all of those things, but we should distinguish between them. I’m excited about a continuing conversation around vocabulary.”

There was much discussion on this topic. Some examples:
Luisa Lyon,the creator of Filmed Live Musicals, a website cataloging stage musicals that have been filmed and made available to the public:  “One of my favorite obsessions is: What do we call it? And how do we help people understand what it is. I’ve spoken to industry people, theater professionals, who don’t understand the difference between “Hamilton” filmed live and “Singing in the Rain” – the difference between something filmed in a theater versus made on a soundstage. And the idea of liveness is also so complicated, because people are using the same term for different things – captured live, coming to you live, especially ‘live from Broadway,’ and it was actually filmed five years ago and has been sitting in an archive.”

Jim McCarthy comment riffed from “Circle Jerk,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that was first presented exclusively online, then live on stage, then simultaneously online and on stage: “It reminded me of the late 80s when you started to have rock and roll artists incorporate rap in their songs, and people were saying: Is it rap? Is it rock? And I remember thinking, as a 20 year old, I don’t care, it’s cool, and I like it, So I felt very much that “Circle Jerk” was an example of somebody who’s already in that future where the lines have blurred and these things just blend.”

Digital theater is not film.

“The problem is that the work is viewed through the same lens that is used with Spielberg, or with Hamilton on Disney Plus. I’m having meetings with artistic directors in New York where they’re like, ‘we want to do digital, but it costs like $900,000 to do right.’ When Superman needs to fly in a Marvel movie, it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars and lo and behold, Superman flies.  Superman on stage flying is a couple of shoelaces, a chair and a sheet. And lo and behold, Superman still flies.  It’s a different lens.
“When I started doing this during the pandemic, I said, I’m a theater artist that’s working with cinematic tools. So as a result of that, liveness is important, imagination is important, the uncanny valley is important, and co-presence is important. I want to make sure that everything I’m doing, whether it’s a success or a failure,  is investigating what it means to have liveness and co-presence.
What does it mean for an audience to feel the thing happening in real time? That has been kind of my guiding force for everything I’ve done leading to ‘Section 230,’ which was really trying to put the audience on stage, and feel the sense of co-presence, which is just as powerful as participating.”

Digital theater does not have to be the same as in-person theater, in form or length.

 “Digital work doesn’t have to be a replication of in-person theater — a two-and-a-half hour show. I think of the joy I had when I did with Les Waters, “What If If Only” the new Caryl Churchill piece, which was 14 minutes long. There was great joy in being released from timecode. Pixar did very well with their beautiful short films that were shown before the feature film.

The accessibility that digital theater provided during the pandemic shut-down is still needed.

“When the pandemic hit, nobody could see in-person theater. Now that the pandemic has loosened up, we are kind of forgetting that actually even before the pandemic there were people who were homebound and couldn’t see in-person theater. One of the big things as we’re getting back into this theatergoing space is that accessibility is much broader than I realized. For example, Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is not accessible in a school down in Florida right now because of a new political agenda.

“I  also used to think of accessibility just in terms of the audience members. Then I had a long conversation with Mikeah  Jennings, a performer in ‘Section 230,’ who told me how much he loved being able to be himself again by sitting at the kitchen table and being able to perform that show in real time, with all of the skills that he knew were still in him but he had been told he could not do anymore because of his health; he’d had several surgeries. After the show closed, I told him I wanted to bring it into an in person setting, but with cameras on the stage, so we could do both an in person audience and a streaming audience. Right away, he said ‘then you’re now eliminating me from being able to do this.’ He was ailing in many ways, and shortly afterward he passed away.  I had never thought before about digital theater offering accessibility to performers.”

The market for digital theater is uncertain, as is the financing, which helps explain some theater industry resistance to it. 

“When Geffen Playhouse did their Stayhouse Series, [which included the world premiere of Mezzocchi’s “Someone Else’s House”], it was related to their not wanting to lay anybody off or put anybody on furlough. So the production manager became a line editor, the props designer was asked to do something else. But at the end of it, they said ‘we’re bringing everybody back into the role they served in-person theater.’ Some of the staff thought: Maybe we should continue. But you’d be double-dipping – the production manager would also have to work as the line editor – because the theater just can’t hire two teams. Digital is not in a place right now that can afford the financial risk. We’re still trying to build what the damn market is and who the audience is of that. So I get why people resist it.”

Jim McCarthy added: “Some percentage of the industry needs to be building their capabilities, even if from a small level. There’s no way to get to a place in five years where you have a wider range of capabilities. or understanding of the market unless you’re going up that learning curve now.’

Mezzocchi: “I agree with that. I also have seen a surge in people contacting me in the last month about new grants specifically targeting digital infrastructure. And that is thrilling given theaters’ waning budgets.”

The possibilities for digital theater are waiting to be tapped

“The question is not: Are people out there making digital theater? The answer is absolutely yes. I think the question is: Where are we seeking opportunity to continue the work. I’m interested in talking to completely non-artistic ventures, like hospitals, to say: Look, this is actually a huge tool for connectivity and storytelling.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply