All the World’s a Screen? They’re Used to It

For the members of Gob Squad, a Berlin-based company that has brought shows like “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had it So Good)” to New York, screens offered as a way to hide from the audience, to become more ghostly themselves. “We were very shy,” Sean Patten, a founding member said, speaking via Zoom. “We found it easier to talk to a camera, and have that relayed live to the audience.”

Deployed onstage, screens contrast different styles of acting and being, creating what Valk describes as “this frisson, between the screen, the very seductive screen, and the live performer.”

In shows like “Flicker” and “Shelf Life,” the New York-based company Big Art Group showed human actors standing alongside and between their onscreen selves. In performances by the Chicago company Manual Cinema, audience eyes move up to the sophisticated animated film screened above the stage and then down to the messy, sweaty frantic world of the puppeteers and musicians staging it.

But mess and sweat aren’t Covid-era friendly, so Manual Cinema, like other groups, has moved its shows exclusively online, which means that the variance between live actor and screen has pretty well collapsed.

In previous Manual Cinema shows, each audience member had to decide what to watch — the people or the animation. “You’re cutting your own edit,” Sarah Fornace, a Manual Cinema artistic director, said, speaking by telephone. In their “Christmas Carol,” which they livestreamed in December, the camera edits for us, controlling our gaze, limiting interaction and choice.

“There’s a fascism to the medium,” Patrick Foley said of online drama, in a recent conference call with his Fake Friends collaborator Michael Breslin. The two are creators of “Circle Jerk,” one of last year’s more successful online works, which took inspiration from Wooster Group shows, multicamera sitcoms and Instagram stories. The show used a type of camera popular with YouTube influencers. Was this theater? “If it’s not theater, at least it’s theatrical,” Breslin hedged.

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