On stage, on screen, Wooster’s ‘fourth wall’

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

When I went to see the Wooster Group at UCLA in 2002, there was something profoundly jarring about the technology. The video screens, the earbuds piping audio into the actors’ ears, the tech folks onstage. It was thrilling … but it seemed very foreign, almost aggressive in the theater.

Why were there video screens facing the stage?

What were these strategically placed displays prompting the actors to do? What were they showing them?

If you’ve never seen a Wooster Group show, in addition to all the audience facing technology and media, there are several pieces of actor directed technology. In addition to the wireless microphones that the actors almost always wear, there are also earbuds and, most intriguing, a series of video screens facing the actors (often above the audience’s heads) that are playing all manner of visual direction. Like at the circus, I’m often looking in the wrong direction at a Wooster Group show. I’m craning my neck to see what the actors are seeing. What are they watching on those screens?

I’ve seen everything from cartoons, to Inuit dramas, to Richard Burton, slapstick and, in the current production of Harold Pinter’s “The Room,” what is apparently Chinese cross-talk comedy.  These technological prompt boxes are feeding them not their next line or cue but an entirely different level of information. Often, these video screens are providing a physical score that’s laid over the play being performed. If you sneak a peak during “The Room” you’ll find moments where the actors’ sweeping hand gestures on stage exactly mimic those of the two men on the screen.

When I first saw these screens at a Wooster Group show, none of us had iPhones in our pockets. Snapchat and Instagram and a constant timeline and image feed were part of our technological future rather than our constantly distracting present. Watching the Wooster Group actors juggle yet another ball seemed wonderfully brave and post-modern. Those screens and the actors’ attention to them felt like another layer of information. It certainly didn’t feel commonplace and if anything it felt overtly theatrical – hardly of the everyday. It was, at least in a traditional sense, shattering the fourth wall.

Remember the fourth wall? That notion that when you went to the theater you were peering into the lives of the characters as they really were, as if you were looking through a transparent “fourth wall” of the set. We the audience weren’t really there – at least, in the eyes of the actors. Juxtapose that with a theater where the audience is present. Where actors might talk directly to us through an aside or a moment when the illusion of a contained on-stage world suddenly ‘broke’ that wall and included us.

When we think about the fourth wall, we might think Chekhov or Ibsen. But the Wooster Group?

Sitting in the audience during “The Room,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the world has caught up to the Wooster Group and created a fourth wall in their theatrical world.

As I watched Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk watching the screens above the audience, paying vital attention to another feed of information that would influence their onstage lives and possibly distract them from the audience, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, that’s just like real life.”

That’s just like countless meetings where the assembled ensemble of co-workers performs listening while checking email. It’s like the conversation with a loved one that happens while one, or often both, of you simultaneously check email and a text message. It’s like the diner sitting next to you who suddenly broadcasts his meal to the world, curating a constant image feed that seems more significant than actual nourishment. I won’t even mention teenagers and their phones.

I no longer felt like I was watching something technological or postmodern. This attention to distant screens was no longer an artistic feat of concentration and modulation, it was a representation of our everyday lives.  Puzzling out why the actors were paying more attention to screens than the flesh and blood in front of them  was no longer a fascinating post-modern exercise of a new muscle, it was just another moment in a life where distraction is ever present.

Suddenly, I wondered if these screens that seemed to be for the actors were there for us, the audience, all along. Perhaps, director Elizabeth LeCompte wasn’t as interested in how they affected the actors (with perhaps revealing, in an odd marriage between Artaud and Stanislavski, a truer core that would reveal itself if only the actor could either burn through or be distracted enough to leave nothing but a pure essence). Maybe who the screens were always meant to affect were those of us in the seats. These distracted actors who didn’t pander to their audience were prophets of our lives to come.

Maybe these screens are the Wooster Group’s fourth wall.