[It is Watch Party my dudes]
I hold the ATC ‘youth’ shows in high regard, attending in the past primarily to take a sneak-peek at the hot new talent rising within the ranks of the Auckland theatre scene. I also have a soft spot for devised theatre and the inclusive platform this type of theatre making can offer to a large cast.
Watch Party is one of the latest ATC Here & Now Festival offerings, devised under the direction of Wellington’s Binge Culture. It is a show that feeds you chocolate (holla at my boy Pavlov), absurdist meme-based comedy, and a hearty helping of modern relationships seen through the lens of social media.
The individual scenes or segments are critically powerful, passionately social, and contain comedy gold. It is a site-specific romp through the ‘public’ spaces of the ASB Waterfront Theatre which sees the cast ‘activating’ spaces such as the staircases, balconies, the elevator, the coat check box, the atrium, and the Villa Maria Gallery.
The cast are visually tied together by a base costume of whites and nudes over which individualised costumes are later worn to reflect various stereotypical internet personalities. These secondary costumes largely all incorporate some kind of fairy lights either attached to their garments or accessories (the incorporation of the lights clearly demarcates the cast from their audience once they have their civvies on). To complete the character building the cast use their own names and perform as exaggerations of their own internet personas (or so it appears). When Alex Schofield turns to you and says something as ‘Alex’, it isn’t really Alex Schofield you are listening to, it is a constructed Alex – ‘a real-life Hitchcock blonde’ apparently. This choice serves as a constant reminder of the curated nature of our online profiles and how we choose which version of ourselves our online ‘audience’ get to see.
And talking of curation, goodness does Watch Party have a fun soundtrack. We are welcomed to the show through a dance sequence set to the ever-popular track ‘Africa’ by Toto which could only be seen by standing on the road opposite the theatre and gazing delightedly up at the two tiers of gangway visible through the glass façade. With a row of cast members on each level it is something between a flash mob and go–go dancers; a little choreographed, a little sexy, and very entertaining.
Another musical treat comes in the form of a beautiful and hilarious nod to the Enya ‘Only Time’ meme, achieved through a clever use of levels and a fair amount of slow-motion crying.
Further highlights include Lucas Haugh’s solo in the elevator, which involves his zealous self-pitch being interrupted when another performer apathetically pushes the door button so that his speech is cut off by the closing glass sliding doors. He descends out of sight only to return in a few moments to launch into his spiel again. Last night this proved to be endlessly amusing to the surrounding audience.
Simultaneously running is a segment which sees five performers, including an effervescent Jodi (Jodi Fordyce), recite classic vines with choreography including all-time favourites such as:
What up I’m Jared, I’m 19.
I’m in me Mum’s car, Broom Broom!
Aw an avocado! Thanks…
(Google them if you must.)
I mentioned earlier that there is a strong critical element to the work and I mean it. Amongst the jokes the show continually gestures at the voids between individuals that are created through the use of social medias and electronic communication. The show gives us lonely group chats, enactments of miscommunications, the act of blocking someone, and many, many embodiments of the physical space between people when we communicate online rather than IRL.
One particularly telling piece of wish-fulfilment comes when Tasman (Tasman Clark), who lends his name and face to the portrayal of a misogynistic internet troll, is taken down by a ruthless woman in a flowing red dress. In a segment based around comment culture, Tasman starts to abuse fellow commenters in the now familiar way but, instead of the troll happily going on with his life, the audience gets to rather satisfyingly witness his comeuppance as the words are literally choked out of him by the hand of Annie (Annie Duynhoven). I would happily hire her as the internet police.
But it is in the closing club scene that we get the best sense of the pitfalls of online engagement. With the cast weaving in and out of the audience, this dance party cleverly reflects how young people are warily attempting to find new ways to navigate the ever-widening interstices created by platforms like Facebook and Instagram. This sees them reaching to tools such as the eponymous ‘watch party’, which allows you to watch videos live or recorded, and interact with one another around these videos in real time.
Unfortunately, this highly engaging and thought provoking content was a little marred by the practical aspects of site specific theatre at the ASB Waterfront Theatre.
To be clear, I felt fully immersed in the show. I was able to traverse the many active sites, speak to actors, and dance to a terrifying second version of Toto’s ‘Africa’ which gets faster each time it modulated up a key. Nonetheless, I feel like I missed an awful lot of what I could have experienced had there been either more time or a smaller audience.
There were very few instances within the show where I could not adequately see the performers through the throng of audience members. In fact my companion and I did not see the ‘end’ of the show at all, as too many faces were already pressed to the window of the Villa Maria Gallery for us to get a look in. I found it frustrating to have to vie with other patrons to see the action. This would easily have been solved by either finding ways to elevate the actors, or reducing capacity.
It was also a struggle to hear some of the performers. A couple had exceedingly strong voices (Augustine Dube, Chloe Bagayas) but on the whole I probably heard less than 60% of what I needed to hear. I don’t know if this is simply not being able to get close enough to the action or due to the use of spaces which are acoustically unfriendly.
As a millennial, every reference was hysterical but I do have to wonder who the intended audience was, as much of the show required knowledge of contemporary internet culture. After all, how many self-respecting adults are intimately familiar with the triumphs and failures of the six second video host Vine (RIP)?
In truth, I wanted more. I wanted better sightlines, more time with each segment of the show, more development of the concepts, more of the supremely engaging cast. I wanted more, because what I got to taste was good.
Watch Party features in Auckland Theatre Company’s Here and Now Festival 2019 and plays until 29th April.
Directed by Binge Culture and devised with the cast.
Directors: Joel Baxendale, Oliver Devlin, and Karin McCracken.
Featuring: Emily Hurley, Nathanael Tan, Ophelia Wass, Michael Brown, Georgia Hoskins-Smith, Annie Duynhoven, Lucas Haugh, Adeline Esther, Jodi Fordyce, Augustine Dube, Catherine Yates, Natasha Verney, Alex Schofield, Gabrielle Dally, Tasman Clark, Chloe Bagayas.