The Gershwin Hotel is a Gaudi-esque anomaly on 27th street. Its red facade and the frosted glass light sculptures that curl upward from the window tops contemplate a Flatiron inferno. As you walk through the front doors, a collection of characters that belong at the Algonquin round table sit at the hotel bar on the right. Past the reception desk on the left is a table with information on the trip you are about to take around the world. A lovely lady in a floor length dress leads you to the back of the building and a set of stairs. Two other people wait with you. Ushers appear through double doors and take you into a room with several laptops and headsets. you are about to visit three different countries to have three long distance affairs.
My first journey took me to Mexico city, where Laura told me I was a bastard for leaving her. She tore up my favorite pair of underwear and threatened to kill my cat. The second trip was to Brazil where Dani told me she and her husband moved to the city so she could study oncology. Though we hadn’t seen each other for many years, she said I would be happy to know she gave birth to a daughter. Finally, I was transported to a kitchen in Romania, where a man named Lucian asked me about my favorite childhood food and then made it for me.
Our Skype interface was a little disorienting. The usual technological glitches layered on top of non-native English sometimes made it difficult to follow the contours of my affairs. These three anonymous, international intimacies were dramatic, however; in Mexico and Brazil I was forced to play a part that only became clear as the actor drew me out with hints and questions, and in Romania I felt the familiar strangeness of a kitchen conversation.
When Laura made me into her boyfriend who had run away to New York, I felt both empathy for the men I know who have left family in foreign countries, and alienation from them because I have a home complete with family and the security of citizenship. In Brazil I had a difficult time understanding who I was. Dani told me she needed to tell me something important. Then she told me about an old woman whose near-death experience convinced her to move to the city to become a doctor. But I didn’t understand that I was implicated in this story until she told me I would be happy to know that she was pregnant. When I realized I was her father, a completely different set of emotions cascaded through me, like a gulp of hot soup that burns your throat and sets off an incendiary bomb in your gut.
Lucian introduced himself as a candidate for a new, web-based cooking show. Our encounter, he said, was part of his audition. In order to make me the best possible meal, he asked about my childhood memories of food, then he told me to shut my eyes while he described the meal I was to eat. Toma Danila, the actor playing Lucian, has a resume longer than my arm in stage, film and TV acting, and his extraordinary skills worked their intended magic: I had a synesthetic experience, his words creating the food I had requested, bringing back memories of childhood, and steeping me in a soft, nostalgic glow.
“Immersive” theatre is the latest rage amongst the avant-garde. Although productions like Sleep No More have been a big popular success, to me they feel more like glorified haunted houses than a dramatic, theatrical experience. Some people get off on that kind of thing, but those folks are actors, paid or otherwise. They like being part of the action, and they know what to do in a dramatic situation. Natural actors may feel comfortable improvising within the parameters of the show, but only because they have already absorbed the limits of the play-space. On the other hand, theater folk want to produce a “unique” experience, when in fact the experience is only unique for the audience. What the actors produce amongst themselves is a very familiar experience, one they have rehearsed for many hours to achieve the effect of spontaneity. Very good actors are able to project this carefully crafted reality beyond the borders of the stage, but even the best actors can be rattled by an unruly or uncooperative audience. Everyone else is apprehensive: either they are unsure of the rules of the game, or they break the rules in a way that threatens to break the scene.
But the experience at Long Distance Affair is different. Perhaps the mediating effect of technology produces a paradoxical illusion of intimacy that you don’t feel when a three dimensional, living human is standing in front of you; or perhaps we have become desensitized to the vastness of space and the lived difference of time since the Internet has collapsed local experience from a multitude of collective perspectives dependent on the position of the sun and stars to an atomistic chaos of perpetual nows. Long Distance Affair gives proof that the illusion of hyper-locality is more intense and more false when produced through the Internet. The possibilities for drama are profound, particularly because the viewer, freed from the collective gaze of her fellow audience members may feel more free to act in the microplay unfolding on the laptop’s high definition screen than she would in a scary haunted house version of Medieval Scotland.
There is a precedent for this theatrical experiment, of course. Millions of people across the globe interact with strangers who perform for them on camera, though the majority of these interactions, I would guess, are paid transactions between lonely, horny men and young, half (or fully) naked women. It is almost cliche to point out that the first and most popular use of the Internet is for pornography. The illusion of intimacy that will be turned off and forgotten like a laptop screen after it is snapped shut is what porn sites and chat rooms offer. It is a relatively safe, relatively anonymous space for both performer and consumer to create an alternate reality in a virtual world where forbidden or repressed emotions can be explored.
The technology is both a screen and a scaffold. Movies are projected onto screens, but the screen between two people on Skype is permeable and two-way. Verbal and visual information are transmitted back and forth, but the threat of physical intimacy is screened out. Long Distance Affair’s producers Ana Margineanu and Tamilla Woodard further screen the experience by choosing actors and constructing a play-space that ensures audience participation will remain above the belt, so to speak. They provide a scaffold upon which a viewer can construct the fantasy of becoming another person in a different country, even though for all the viewer knows, the actors they see could be in New York, or even in the Gershwin hotel.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the uncertainty produced by the technological screen between me and the actors. They clearly knew more about me than I did about them — they knew where I was and what type of person would chose to be their audience. But I felt safe exploring my inner actor, sealed off from the world and connected to a laptop, exploring the most transgressive desire of all — the desire to make an emotional connection with another human being.