My stage-and-screen production company, Media Theatre Company (MTC), just produced our second multimedia play, "The Screens Between," which had a very successful four-show run at the McCormick Tribune Center on Northwestern University's campus, May 3-5, 2007. The same team that produced "The Philippine Deep" last year - Steve Persch, Ian Bennett, and I (the core members of MTC, I suppose) - was behind "The Screens Between" this year. Steve and I co-wrote the script, Steve directed, Ian created the digital media and directed "Harborview" (which was awesomely produced by Cate Smerciak and Jamie Dobie), and I served as Executive Producer.
"The Screens Between" is the story of a young couple, Dan and Meg, who are separated when Dan gets deployed to Iraq. While Dan is overseas, all the contact that Meg can have with him occurs through media: the telephone, e-mails, IMs, and the images of the Iraq occupation that Meg hates to watch on TV. In Dan's absence, Meg becomes addicted to a daytime soap opera, "Harborview," whose main characters, Davis and Mallory, closely resemble Meg and Dan. Meg's best friends become her fellow participants in the "Harborview" online chatroom. Meg's whole life takes place on screens - television and computer screens - which works fine for her, but doesn't work so well for Dan, who returns home only to find virtual worlds coming between him and Meg.
You can read the official press release for "The Screens Between," and watch a clip from "Harborview," our fake soap opera, here: The Screens Between website
And to read my thoughts on Media Theatre Company's mission and philosophy, and about the problematics of media, politics, and interpersonal relationships we aimed to work through with "Screens Between," click here:
This is the second production of the Media Theatre Company. MTC's philosophy is that 21st century U.S. society is saturated with media. Thus, the most "realistic" American contemporary theatre will incorporate media into its live performances. Our plays examine the ways that many forms of media affect individuals' perception of global events, their closest relationships, and themselves. We seek, not only to tell involving stories about fictional characters, but to pose this question to our audiences: What are the divergences and the overlaps between the fantasy worlds we enter through various screens, and the so-called real world? We subscribe to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze's contention that both our *virtualities* and our *actualities* are "real," though they have different intensities. Our productions probe those varying levels of intensity.
Most of the details in the "Screens Between" script about what it is to be stationed in Iraq came from an interview Steve and I did with an ex-Marine who had been stationed near Fallujah with H&S Comapny, 2nd Batallion. He is the older brother of a Northwestern undergraduate student. The NU student (the younger sister) shared with us what it was like for her and her parents to constantly watch images of the war on television, or read reports on the Web, and to be in a constant state of worry based on mediated accounts. A good friend of my mother-in-law, also an Iraq veteran, shared some feelings and thoughts with her about being back from the conflict and being unable to share what he saw and experienced over there; his comments are incorporated into the second act. The factual information, such as what attacks happened to what groups on what days and in which cities, was easy to find on CNN.com and other news sites. Texas Monthly also did a special edition on Texans serving in Iraq and runs a regular column from a soldier stationed there; even though our main characters aren't (necessarily) Texans, they live in a small American town, reminiscent of some of the home towns talked about in those Texas Monthly write-ups.
Meg's reaction to Harborview is based on my own long history as a soap opera fan. Daytime dramas have long been a source of solace and respite for millions of women viewers, since they offer a world in which women's values and priorities are foregrounded. As cultural critic and media scholar Elayne Rapping wrote in her 1994 book "Media-tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars":
"So what do you do when things get really bad? When your checkbook won't balance, your relationship is on the rocks, your job may be phased out, your kids are threatening to run away, or worse, to never move out, and the headlines are giving you nightmares and indigestion? ... There is hope -- daytime soap operas, where the air is pure, the money flows into your bank account automatically, and most people have a profound capacity for intimacy, compassion, and emotional growth -- or are quick studies. ... [T]here are very good reasons for preferring the company of soap characters to one's usual daily routine, especially for women. As fantasies go, the ones presented by soaps are extremely seductive. The offer a lot of things that most of us need and desire but don't get much of in reality. The men on soaps, for one thing, are infinitely supportive and available, living for the women in their lives... The women on soaps, even single working women, have beautifully furnished homes, professionally coiffed hair, and the most stylish, wardrobes you've ever drooled over in Vogue. Good friends and functional families are pretty much a given for anyone who wants them. Which, in Soapland, is everyone..."
Over the last decade, I've noticed that daytime soap fans have flocked to the Internet, building communities where women exchange ideas, opinions, and information not only about soap operas but about their everyday dilemmas and concerns. The message boards and chat rooms that soap viewers have built are real gathering places for women today, I think. Meg's Web-based interactions with her small group of fellow Harborview fans are exaggerated versions of the dialogues I read daily on my favorite soap-themed sites.
We considered staging this play in Chicago, because we think it has broad appeal that reaches beyond the student community, but decided to make it a Northwestern production because most of the troops currently serving in the Middle East are the same age as NU undergrads. If we want to depict the reality of who is going to war, who is fighting this war, and who is left behind at home, to pray and worry and hope, those people are in their late teens and early 20s. So it made sense to us to have a cast and an audience that, for the most part, are the same age as our characters - who are exactly the age of the average U.S. soldier being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.