Anyone who has attended a live performance of a play or musical knows the anticipation that hits right before the first scene begins. The lights dim, the spotlight shines on the stage, and the announcer bellows over the PA system, instructing audience members to please silence their cell phones.
That’s how it would be at an ordinary show, anyway. But this weekend, ArtsEmerson broke tradition and encouraged audiences to use their cell phones to engage with the performances of HOUSE / DIVIDED that packed the theater from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, making it one of the most interesting and interactive performances on campus thus far.
The play, inspired by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, was written by James Givvs and Moe Angelos, directed by Marianne Weems, and performed by New York-based company The Builders Association. The company put together a feature on an app called Layar that the audience could download before the show to “see into a new dimension” of the performance. The app uses the camera of a smartphone and puts a filter-type layer over the image to display a distortion or special effect.
HOUSE / DIVIDED tells the story of the Great Recession of 2008 and the impact the crashing economy had on families across the country. From the family who suffered foreclosure and had to leave their home with no jobs or money, to the investment company that watched every day as the stock market crashed, to the realtors whose jobs suffered tremendous losses as a result of the declining housing market, everyone felt the effects of the economic collapse in some way.
The layer made specifically for HOUSE / DIVIDED created a 3D-looking animated graphic of the stock exchange that appeared to be an endless continuation of statistics and updates. It placed the audience in the stock exchange with the characters as they argued over who was to blame for the crash. It took those who chose to participate with the app to another level of understanding the characters, as it dramatized the severity of the situation being depicted and highlighted the characters’ tension and stress that filled the room.
The plot was depicted by the actors and actresses of The Builders Association in such a way that evoked a genuine sympathy and sense of tenderness from the audience. The general consensus among audience members was that it was an uncomfortable depiction of the difference between the way homeowners view their property versus the way the government does, making the play a successful modern-day interpretation of the themes Steinbeck created in his original work.
“It was a great production with a solid story that highlights the recklessness of banks,” said freshman journalism major Hantzley Audate, who saw a performance. “I think what was so strong about it was the stories of all the people and how everyone was affected by the crash. Not everyone was affected equally, but it shows how fragile the economy is and almost made me feel a sense of futility.”
Muna Salah Moushien, a senior journalism major, said she has been an usher for ArtsEmerson since her freshman year, working her way up to head usher. In her four years of ushering performances, she says HOUSE / DIVIDED is a perfect example of ArtsEmerson’s attempt to give audiences a glimpse of the future of live theater.
“ArtsEmerson has definitely incorporated a lot of technology into their performances lately,” she said. “We’ve generally been getting a good response. [Audience members] love the technological aspect of it. People have said they’ve never seen something like this on stage.”
The Layar app was only one way that the company turned HOUSE / DIVIDED from a live performance into a multimedia spectacle. The set of the production was a white structure that had different sets projected onto it for each setting, which allowed the company to seamlessly transition from scene to scene without delaying the fast pace of the storyline. On top of that, behind the set were two white screens, which featured elements like clips from a documentary about the foreclosures of 2008, plus backdrops and scenery. During some of the most intense scenes, live black and white close-ups of the actors’ faces were projected onto the screens to ensure that the audience could see the expression on their faces as they spoke.
“I think it’s crazy but it’s interesting at the same time,” Moushien said. “A couple years ago, who would even have imagined you could go to a theater for a live performance and have this augmented layer reality to use to experience it? I think it’s amazing, unique, and different. It’s a great way to get people excited about the show.”