Last week I was called for jury duty. Twice. New York City has yet to resume in-person jury trials, but from a perch on my sofa, I could hear and assess one case involving the murder of an elderly woman and another concerning arson in a commercial building. These trials weren’t precisely real or even vaguely legal — and as both were Britain-based I doubt that I and my U.S. passport would have made it past voir dire. But I count each as an extrajudicial highlight in a week spent sampling new experiments in immersive theater and gaming. Verdicts follow.
When theaters shut down in March, many companies scrambled to make archived work available, organized Zoom-hosted readings or adapted productions to an online format. In those first bewildering weeks, proximity to any form of theater felt like a gift, if often the kind of gift — fancy hand soap, say — that you unwrap and then promptly throw into the back of some closet.
As lockdown weeks became lockdown months, the question of whether live theater could be made and shown remotely became moot. It could, with more content available than any sane person should stream.
But could online drama ever substitute for the in-person form? Here, doubt has seemed more reasonable. And yet theatermakers have spent these same months testing the varieties of interaction these platforms allow and which genres and narratives best suit an online setup. A few companies make strong cases for theater in its digital form.
I began with “The Evidence Chamber,” a coproduction from Fast Familiar, an interdisciplinary studio, and the Leverhulme Research Center for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Empaneled as an online jury, participants in any given performance sift through evidence and weigh recorded witness testimony as they consider guilt or acquittal in a murder case.
The jury setup is a brilliant one, not only because some places, like Alaska, are piloting grand jury proceedings via videoconference, but also because many of us already feel sequestered, dependent on online evidence and the occasional expert witness to understand the world around us.
In “The Evidence Chamber,” an actor playing a clerk of the court is present, but participants mostly create the drama themselves as they debate the case. (Think “Twelve Not So Angry Men and Women.”) The piece works both as theater and as an exploration of how laypeople understand and evaluate forensic evidence — here, DNA analysis and gait analysis, a systematic evaluation of an individual’s walk.
The case itself wasn’t complicated. My group — mostly white, mostly women, mostly English — began to vote unanimously about half an hour in. (We were gait skeptics.) Everyone involved seemed to take the task seriously, even as some of us clearly relied on information gleaned from cop show marathons. Toward the end, someone asked if any of us had actually served on a real murder jury. “I don’t think it’s this exciting,” a woman said.
A few days later, I again found myself murder-adjacent, during “Mystery at Boddy Mansion,” a friendly, schlocky dinner theater experience loosely based on the board game Clue. This being a pandemic, dinner was strictly D.I.Y. Assigned characters in advance, a costumed dozen of us met up in a Zoom room to reveal clues, ask leading questions and (in my case) take occasional bites of a lukewarm veggie burger. Actually most people drank their dinners. Wise.
Assigned “Madame Rouge,” a sanitation expert and Gypsy princess (“We prefer Romany,” I said as soon as I could), I wore a kerchief and avoided an accent. My cohort lacked such reservations. One of them, a preteen playing a flighty heiress, accessorized with a live chicken. That’s commitment to character. Few of us were skilled improvisers, which made the conversation awkward, though maybe less awkward than it might have been in person. The solution was perhaps too easy, at least for anyone who played Clue as a kid, though the friend I virtually brought along nearly (and wrongly) confessed. Her dinner was all daiquiris.
Cocktails were also suggested at Chorus Productions’ “Eschaton,” a “Sleep No More”-style happening, originally intended as a live event and reformatted for Zoom. Once the velvet rope rises at a virtual nightclub, spectators wander from room to room, checking out provocative acts. The chat function allows you to message other participants and also receive hints — some gnomic, some straightforward — from a virtual M.C. The hints take you to other rooms and experiences.
Drifting flaneur-like, I saw a naked man sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a contortion act set to “Peter and the Wolf,” an obscene standup routine, a nifty magic trick. There’s a mystery at the heart of “Eschaton” — something to do with a vanished performer. But here the puzzles are so abstruse that I couldn’t get started and after less than an hour, just as I began to feel dimly oriented, the show ended.
Given enough time and M.C. pointers, you could probably crack “Eschaton,” but the problem at the center of “The House Never Wins,” from Kill the Cat, part of Electric Dreams Online, an interdisciplinary arts festival, might be insoluble. In a Zoom room, a group of us gathered to play online blackjack. As we played, rules shifted and a flurry of WhatsApp messages relating to the climate emergency pinged, the suggestion being that while we try to acquire wealth (or in my case, barely stay afloat) the world burns.
A game, an allegory, a screed and an exercise in behavioral economics, it had a lot going on, probably too much, which may have been the point. Your group may ultimately play for a cash prize, but ours managed to destroy the casino (the planet?) well before the final round.
A rare upside of this fraught moment is access to online content from other countries, which explains why I woke up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday (a more reasonable 10 a.m. in Britain) to participate in “Jury Duty” from Exit Productions, also a part of Electric Dreams.
As in “The Evidence Chamber,” my group was constituted as an online jury and asked to deliver a verdict in a case involving arson and possible murder.
Together and separately, “Jury Duty” participants sift through evidence, enter search terms into a custom database and interview the accused. At the same time, a series of emails, texts and videos — different for each participant — insinuate that the case isn’t what it seems.
Plunked at the intersection of theater and gaming, the piece likely works better online than it would have in person. Breathlessly, our group reformatted MP3s and decrypted substitution ciphers, steering the drama to a sensational conclusion. The conspiracy went all the way to — well, it was somewhere extremely high.
Was I utterly absorbed? Guilty. In those frantic predawn hours, I saw a possible future — or at least, a bearable until-we-have-a-vaccine present — for hybrid forms of immersive theater. By the light of an LCD screen, that future didn’t look so bad.