Tuning in to digital reality

By Barney McDonald

Play embraces the digital age, writes Barney McDonald

Barbaby Frederic in the new satirical play 'Live at Six'.
Barbaby Frederic in the new satirical play 'Live at Six'.

With the catchphrase "truth is overrated", it might be easy to dismiss innovative theatre production Live At Six as a post-Orwellian exploration of the manipulation of reality. In fact, that is exactly what the show's theme is, though it is concerned with subject matter more mundane than world domination, control of the proletariat and thought crimes. Or is it?

Co-writers Leon Wadham and Dean Hewison have crafted a "live" television "event" in theatre form, using network news in New Zealand as the foundation for an experience that the audience participates in rather than passively observes. Perhaps taking a leaf out of American comedy show Saturday Night Live as filtered through Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, a shocking incident in the foyer pre-show is filmed in multiple fashion then deconstructed for the audience to compare against their own perceptions.

Confused? Welcome to reality. Or reality constructed through the joint alliance of technology, ratings, celebrity culture and slapstick humour.

"At heart it's a satire," insists Wadham, who worked on TV2's Go Girls and the Auckland Theatre Company production of Lord of the Flies. "We aim to ask genuine questions and make ridiculous jokes. Hopefully it sparks a debate for the journey home."

Playing out like a certain recent mayoral sex scandal, the show creates, disseminates then analyses the spectacular fall from grace of TV news anchor Jane Kenyon (Jess Robinson), whose life and career are shaken and stripped to the core by the ensuing coverage and media competition for the scoop. "On-the-fly" footage contributes an instant reality feel to proceedings, with an actual deadline emerging on stage thanks to a talented pool of techno-savvy crew holding the albatross afloat. Clearly this isn't a show for the faint of heart, whether cast, audience or crew.

"It's a nightmare," concedes Wadham. "I'm just glad that I don't have to execute it."

"Cast members Eli Kent and Barnaby Fredric in particular are racing against time to build their stories each night and there have been occasions where the tech simply refuses to play along. I've mostly heard stories of incredible eleventh-hour saves though, with the editors sending messages between one another and the operators having to cue audio manually on another person's edit when a file goes missing. Things I couldn't even think to do, let alone pull off under serious time pressure."

Helmed by Wellington playwright, actor and director Tim Spite, Live At Six isn't, asserts Wadham, "a show that you can phone in", though phones are encouraged at this production, especially during the pre-show shenanigans. Keep them switched on, but "just switch to silent", he suggests.

"Things change, things go wrong," he adds. "The company thrives on this though. It's rare to do a show that really is different every night."

As anyone who has attended a live show where audience members are plucked from their seats or addressed directly from stage will know, audience participation is a blessing and a curse. Like working with children or animals, it can produce comedy gold or damn the moment to mediocrity, or worse. Wadham prefers to see it as one way forward in terms of engaging a contemporary audience, with its modern sensibilities, interests and expectations, in live theatre.

"I think the most important thing is to recognise that the game has changed. There are companies all over the world exploring what it means to be with an audience in a digital age; some heavily employing technology in their work and many others responding to these technological shifts without necessarily incorporating them into the pieces they're making. You don't have to put AV in your show just because everybody else is doing it. But it's important to think about the world the audience leaves behind when they enter the theatre. It has to inform the world that you create."

With that in mind, wouldn't the world be a happier, less complex, undeniably more harmonious place if reality TV, blogging, social networking and the like just disappeared and left us in peace? Wadham begs to differ.

"It doesn't bother me at all. I like that I can use these tools to seek out a conversation about whatever is on my mind. If I don't want to be part of it, I can sign out. What's the problem with that? I'd rather find a way to make these services work for me than resist change and get left behind."

Counterculture guru Timothy Leary's own popular catchphrase "turn on, tune in, drop out" has never been more pertinent. Apply liberally to truth and fiction, fact and folly,
at your peril.

Live At Six runs in Auckland at Aotea Centre from November 12-16.

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