If you dreamed up a great idea and there was a market hungry for it, wouldn’t you want to make a few dollars with your creation?
Theatre artists Megan Piercey Monafu and Johnny Wideman explore the fallout of that understandable inclination in Strata Inc., a show that’s rooted in the rapidly evolving technology of virtual reality. The show premieres over two weekends in Ottawa starting March 6.
Set in the near future, the story by Ottawa playwright/director Monafu focuses on Victoria, a one-time teenage hacker who has now developed a powerful virtual reality platform and joined a corporate giant eager to bring the platform to market. Confronting issues like online privacy and access, Victoria has to choose: Head up the multinational, with all the potentially corrosive complications that entails, or flee from the very thing she’s created.
“The throughline for me is the question of what happens to ideas when we sell them,” says Monafu, artistic director of Abalone Productions. “That question can sound like it contains a critique within it, but I was trying to be open with the question because I’m a writer. I also work in communications; I sell ideas. But there’s something that happens when you’re thinking, ‘How can these ideas be monetized? How can I attract an audience?’ It changes the way you think about things. That’s Victoria’s dilemma and the people around her. “
Rather than wearing virtual reality head gear — a prohibitively expensive proposition — audiences attending Strata Inc. clap on headphones at the show. They hear, simultaneously, the actors who are in front of them, a musically based soundscape, Strata’s interfering AI Assistant, and audience members, including themselves, who have opted to read small roles (audience participation is voluntary). It’s designed to be an immersive experience, as is virtual reality, and the show is billed as an “audio-play experience.”
Toronto-based Wideman, a playwright and artistic director of the touring troupe Theatre of the Beat, created the soundscape.
“The sound design replaces set design,” he explains. The auditory experience of simultaneously hearing multiple sounds and voices through the headphones “creates the illusion that it’s all taking place in the same space.”
Wideman says that while the music of the soundscape starts with a 1980s synthetic vibe, it moves forward in time, growing increasingly abstract, alienating and intense. It models the story and gave him a chance to play with narrative as well as thinking about what the future of music might sound like.
Monafu and Wideman are conscious of the show’s juxtaposition of theatre and technology, the former a communal experience and the latter — despite the early Internet’s promise to build a better world through connection — not so much.
A lot of the characters experience isolation, says Monafu, underscoring how, as a society, we’re not doing a very good job of talking about Internet issues, including isolation, on the Internet. “I think we’d actually do a better job of talking about them in person and that’s what I intend to do.”
We also need a structure for our online life, and as much as we recoil at the idea, she believes that may mean some regulation.
In Strata Inc., Monafu considers as well the broader question of responsibility for the things we create. “That’s a question that writers face,” she says. “If I write a play with great intentions that has harmful results, is that on me? Probably.”
At the same time, she’s aware that once you’ve thrown something out into the world, you have little control over how it’s used or misused.
She points to the similarity between that and conversations that happen online. As many have discovered to their peril, once you say something, it appears to last forever and attempts to redact it seem fruitless.
“Can we get to the point where we can see people’s past mistakes online and then see their apologies, their changes, and then actually forgive them and move on?” she asks. “That would be really positive instead of a permanent blacklisting of anyone who’s made a mistake.”
Strata Inc. comes at an opportune time, Monafu believes, not just because of its subject matter but also because of its immersive form.
“I think audiences are looking to engage. People’s experiences as a form of entertainment are really popular right now. People do want to go out and have live experiences.”
Strata Inc. runs March 6-7 and 13-14 at the workspace at Rebel.com, 377 Dalhousie St. Tickets and information: eventbrite.ca