NET/TEN Shareback: Anisa George - Mission Hamlet

Fall 2017 Travel Grant Recipient

Anisa George (Philadelphia, PA) and the ensemble of a new work titled Mission Hamlet traveled to see three separate Gob Squad (Berlin, Germany) works performed in the USA: War and Peace; We Are Gob Squad and So Are You; and Revolution Now

SHAREBACK:

George & Co (Philadelphia, PA) and Gob Squad (Berlin, Germany) engaged in an exchange through the development of George & Co’s production of Mission Hamlet - a live and unruly reconstruction of Shakespeare’s work that utilized iPhones and live feed technology to catapult Hamlet outside the theater and inspire brave acts of civic participation. This production was performed at the Public Theater in NYC as part of Under the Radar, Incoming! in January 2018 as well as several times throughout its development in Philadelphia. Gob Squad was called upon to mentor George & Co. throughout the process, pulling from more than twenty years of experience in participatory (often street-inhabiting) theatrical work.

How We Came to Use iPhones:

Mission Hamlet started with my complete fascination with a company called Gob Squad, based in Berlin, who has used a lot of projection and live feed to create some sublime participatory scenes with people in the street. But Gob Squad has always used cabling (Revolution Now!), or playback (Super Night Shot) to render this street-video on stage. So… I wanted to figure out a way to do similar work, but live from the street without having to lay any cable.

I remember, in the beginning, walking through B&H in NYC and thinking I was gonna need $50,000 of wireless technology to get decent live feed video between the theater and the street. I picked the brains of every videographer I could wrangle, etched out numbers for renting satellite trucks, and even tried daisy chaining some google hotspots around my city block (we left them in plastic bags, so people might think they were big doggie bags and leave them alone). For a couple of months, I was more mad scientist than theater artist, trying to cobble together a way the ensemble could roam free outside the theater in any direction at any range and beam back a quality video to the audience. The big bucks never materialized for the high-end models I was scheming about, so I was left in the rehearsal room with my bruised and battered laptop and an iPhone 7 trying to make the dream happen regardless of the technology on hand.
 

Which Platform to Use:

We looked into all sorts of live streaming platforms we could run through my phone - Skype, Facebook Live, Youtube Live, Periscope, Ustream - but in the end FaceTime was the clear winner. It was free, we experienced the least drop out, the best sound, and could easily maximize the screen on my laptop and get rid of any extraneous crap around the image. Sometimes when we really got running with the iphone, or were passing through a barrier (think, thick theater wall) we’d get a sign that said “Poor Connection: This video will resume automatically when the connection improves,” but we often didn’t loose sound in these instances, only the image, and we realized that sound more than image keeps you feeling connected to the performer. I think the benefit of using iPhones and FaceTime (tools so much of our audience had already interfaced with) was also that, if something went wrong, the apparent fault was not with the video designer, but with the system at large we all inhabit. Mission Hamlet is in many ways about trying to overcome our feelings of political impotency in a broken world, so using slightly limited, impotent tools, rather than high-end equipment, felt appropriate thematically (as well as necessary budget-wise!).

What About Signal Dropout?!:

Granted we were taking a big risk. If anything monopolized the bandwidth in the area we wanted to perform, there would be no signal from the street. Though we never experienced this problem in the half a dozen performances we staged, we had backup videos that we filmed during tech, in costume and on location, to slot in through Isadora Software, if we lost all connection and couldn’t get it back. But again, this never happened. Once we had trouble with an HDMI computer/projector connection, but never with phone reception.

How Do You Cue an Actor on the Street?

In the beginning we thought we were going to have to hire an extra stage manager to wrangle the street performers, and get the outdoor scenes to slot in precisely with the work going on inside the theater. But we realized that if we never cut the FaceTime calls (just muted them), the street-actor could watch a lot of what was going on inside the theater from their phone, basically using it as a kind of green room monitor, so they would know exactly when to “enter”. So “entering” and “exiting” the theater via live feed was controlled by shuttering or un-shuttering one of the two projectors on stage rather than going through the tedious process of calling the street-actor’s phone and setting up a new connection every time they needed to be reincorporated in the performance. Basically, once we were connected we stayed connected until the end of the show. In this system, if we had, had more than two actors outside the theater, projecting through more than two phones, we probably would have had to add a projector for each actor/phone added, but we were happy with two.

Setting up a Virtual Confessional:

There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when King Claudius gets down on his knees and attempts to beg God to forgive him for the heinous murder he’s committed. In our play we were interested in finding a way that we could all pray for the forgiveness of our political sins, but were struggling to find a way to illicit these confessions from the audience. We started with a dumb-show in which the actors would mime the action of a sin, for example not voting, and then ask the audience members to stand up if they saw themselves reflected on stage, proclaiming “The King Rises” when they did. This felt terribly awkward all around! In the attempt to introduce some anonymity to the scene, we tried the idea of people whispering in our ear, which slowly grew into putting pieces of paper in a jar we could read aloud, and finally became “the virtual confessional”. How does it work? Basically we used some free online software which can be found at www.polleverywhere.com. Each audience member could text in their sin via their personal smart phone and it would instantly be projected in front of the entire audience. In this way we harnessed the participation of the majority of audience members in a short amount of time, and created an anonymous space where brave declarations and confessions could be born - like “I voted for Trump” - that might not necessarily be volunteered in a liberal theater going crowd without the promise of anonymity.

Virtual Confessional Video Excerpt: vimeo.com/251701255 , Password: inkycloak, Timecode
57:14

SUMMARY

Even though I am somewhat of a luddite, and think of the theater as a modern oasis from phones, I discovered some theatrical territories that could only be reached through my little hand held device, and I’m glad I took the journey I did. Not many people are making theater indoors with scenes outdoors, but if you’re one of those people, consider your smart phone as a stalwart companion.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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