Above a certain age, there is a community of smart phone, computer and digital technology users who can remember the first time they used an emoji or a gif. And, it stands to reason in this era of a decreasing digital divide that there are people who may not know how to use gifs or emojis, depending on the platform.
For their production of , the team behind Solas Nua’s show hope to help audiences out, by offering a short class on how to use gifs and emojis on the WhatsApp messaging platform and Zoom. The production hopes to explore, through the lens of friends Cormac (Cormac Elliot) and Da’Von (Da’Von Moody), how we’ve adopted these visual images into our everyday language of the digital realm.
I went into this performance with high expectations. Solas Nua, in artistic director’s Rex Daugherty’s hands, had one of the most talked-about performances for 2019. The Smuggler was highlighted as DCTS’s top production last year, and was listed in The New York Times as one of the best productions nationwide, based on reader recommendations. It’s their ability to adapt and produce work in a diversity of environments, beyond the traditional stage, while being able to deliver an excellent story.
This production, using these tools, felt at best like a practice run for something better down the road. The biggest flaw the production has is the lack of a complete story. The framing device of teaching an audience how to use gifs and emojis starts off strong, but the audience is never able to connect properly with the characters.
That said, Elliot and Moody deliver really charming performances via Zoom, and deliver an excellent management of the cross platform interactions. Their chemistry is fabulous, and their interactions where they tease or encourage each other are some of the more touching moments of the play.
The production opens (after some technical instructions for the audience) with Da’Von caught coming out of a shower at the start of the class. Don’t ask me why he turned his camera on. After a hello and, after only covering up the top part of his body, (Not judging, I’m sure he wasn’t the only one on this Zoom call clad in only underwear), we go into the start of the class on learning how to respond to questions using only gifs and emojis.
Side note, it is VERY cool that Elliot delivers this performance from Ireland, and that the technology provides access to a wider audience.
The problem is that the characters’ individual stories never feel conclusive. Da’Von steps away from the camera to use the bathroom and never comes back. Cormac bemoans his break up and asks the audience for words of advice and encouragement (delivered via gif, of course), before saying goodbye and closing the Zoom meeting. The apparent ending is so abrupt, at a 48 minute runtime, that my viewing partner asked, “Is that it?”
It’s not quite it; the rest of the production is shared in gif and emoji format. It can be easy to miss if it gets buried by posts and comments from the audience. By that point, there were notifications from people who had left the WhatsApp channel, therefore missing the official ending of the play. But the connection has been severed, so it can be quite easy to miss even the gifs of the actors’ bows delivered at the end of the long thread of images on the WhatsApp channel.
The play ends with a short video of Rex Daugherty, offering the WhatsApp group channel he created for the audiences as a space of our own. It’s a cute intention, along the lines of “It’s the thought that counts.” We have more than enough of our own spaces: our homes, our social media bubbles, our quarantine pods. I can presume others felt the same way, based on the notifications of people leaving the group almost immediately after.
It feels like the themes of language and communication get lost in the play’s distractions, and its lack of focus. The attention sharing between multiple screens, the ongoing stream of gifs on the channels, and what the characters are trying to share with us gets muddled. That may be one of the points that director Rex Daugherty and writer Jeremy Keith Hunter are trying to help us discover. If that’s the case, then it’s not a new or interesting message. We know we’re all together trying to live through 2020; no one is wearing pants.
This is their first of three digital theatre productions for Solas Nua. I look forward to the next ones with the lessons learned from this production.
Written by Jeremy Keith Hunter. Directed by Rex Daugherty; Starring Da’Von Moody, Cormac Elliot; Devised by John King; Assistant Directed by Mekala Sridhar; AV Design by Navid Azeez. Produced by Solas Nua.