Embracing Love and Tech in Large-Scale “Play/Date”

Memory or Memorex? Jacqueline Guillen in Play/Date. Photo: Brian T. Scott
Memory or Memorex? Jacqueline Guillen in Play/Date. Photo: Brian T. Scott
Memory or Memorex? Jacqueline Guillen in Play/Date. Photo: Brian T. Scott

We are accustomed to fact and fiction being blurred: five minutes of Fox News gives you that. But in the experience of theatre, how to blur fact and fiction is a subtler, far more slippery scheme. By its definition, theatre is the art of artifice, an “imitation of an action.” Since the 19th century, the Western theatre has been dominated by a fetish for showing precise representations of what is true-to-life; the twin stylistic pillars called “realism” and “naturalism” are the vehicles to get us there. More and more in our present day, the question is how we will use technology to advance the cause — how it will help a imitative art form to seem ever more real.

The “immersive theatrical experience” Play/Date, which opens July 16 at the nightclub and lounge Fat Baby (112 Rivington St., 866-811-4111), has an embracing take on this question. Certainly technology is present in the context of the performance — that is, when ticket buyers arrive at the venue and begin to follow those characters and plot-lines they like. But the show actually begins before the performance — from the moment the ticket-buyer reserves. At that point, they meet and are encouraged to follow the characters via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in a convenient mashup of fact, fiction and marketing. In performance, the character’s personalities are already defined; even Fat Baby’s bartenders and cocktail waitresses have arcs and scenes as the essential fiction of Play/Date is given flesh.

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Presented by 3-Legged Dog, Play/Date is conceived by performance and multimedia artist Blake McCarty (director of strategic initiatives for the San Diego Film Festival) and is designed and directed by Michael Counts, the redoubtable, resilient wizard behind some of the most alluring (if occasionally baffling) large-scale theatrical projects in New York City during the last two decades. In total, Play/Date features 18 actors and more than 40 characters in 17 crowdsourced short plays by Greg Kotis (Urinetown), Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), Chad Beckim (And Miles to Go), Matthew Cleaver (Gay Blues), Ashlin Halfnight (God’s Waiting Room), Claire Kiechel (Wolf Play), Isaac Oliver (Lonely Christmas), Joe Salvatore (III) and Emily Chadick Weiss (The Share), and such quickly-rising writers as McCarty, Elle Anhorn, Kelly ClaunchJennie Gruber, Emily Kaczmarek, Catherine Lacey, Jamie Roach and Sara Jo Wyllie. (For those tracking such things, that’s 10 male playwrights and seven female playwrights.)

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To tickets to Play/Date, click here.

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And now, 5 questions Michael Counts has never been asked: 

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
More an observation than a question but Peter Marks, in his New York Times review of my show The Field of Mars (an immersive performance installation I did with GAle Gates et al in our 40,000-square-foot space in DUMBO) described the experience as “a bit like chasing a 2-year-old around the apartment” — which I didn’t actually realize was a compliment until I read the rest of his review. My understanding of what he meant — and in truth, the full weight of the compliment — wasn’t clear until I had a couple of 2-year old boys myself and had the chance to chase them around our apartment. I then felt that it was a very perceptive, unlikely and accurate observation. My work has always been based on that sort of unpredictable and maddening joy. I’ve always wanted to make my work reflect my own sense of wonder and create experiences for people that fully engage them and require them to explore and discover, pursue and ultimately “achieve” the show. Sitting back in a comfy chair is fine (and I’ve done that in the opera productions I’ve done), but what I love most is something more — something, I guess, like the wonder and excitement and challenge and frustration and charm and ultimate pay off of a playful and fun experience. Something like “chasing after and playing with a 2-year-old.”

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Did you start doing work like this after Sleep No More?” Though I admire Punchdrunk’s work and appreciate the risk and effort that Emursive put into producing Sleep No More in New York and thereby popularizing the form, the reality is that there is a long history of work like that: things that I did, the many legendary productions of En Garde Arts, the pure brilliance of everything Reza Abdoh did and the work that Ken Roht did after Reza passed away, among many, many others. Not to mention the long history of “happenings” and much of the performance art within movements like Fluxus and beyond.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Is it okay to have sex in your ‘theatre’ while exploring your show?” Though its not really that weird if you ever came to any of the shows GAle GAtes did in DUMBO. I think exploring in that way can bring out something sort of primal in an audience.

What is so intoxicating or alluring about the alchemy of romantic relationships that it calls for a large-scale, multi-level, multi-social-media setting?
What’s more intoxicating or alluring? Love, lust, connection, commitment, sex, friendship, pursuit, success, loss and the desire to do it all again – things that spring to mind when I think of romantic relationships. These are some of the fundamental drivers of what we do as human beings, and the uncertainty and excitement that goes along with them all is a big part of what makes life awesome and challenging. Social media is just a part of how we do that now, and bars and nightclubs in New York happen to be fertile ground for such things. The scale of this production is fairly large but the scale is more about the form than the theme: wanting people to have room to explore and discover, be drawn in and then move on, and to show the breadth of possibilities within the themes and topic we are exploring. Full disclosure: I’ve been happily married for 10 years (to one of the show’s actors and co-producer) so I’m a bit out of the dating scene, but still have a great deal of connection with all of the material. Several of the stories in Play/Date contemplate not just the hookup and/or early stages of a relationship but also the challenges of longer-term relationships and in one instance marriage, albeit in a light and at times hilarious way. I guess I’ve always been drawn to fundamental human issues in my work – a way to explore and process my own experience. This is very much in the spirit of that.

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Since virtually everyone involved in Play/Date is embedded in some way in which the “performance” plays out, how do you direct it? What do you say to an “actor” who says, “What if this happens?” What’s your guiding ethos for performance style?
Blake McCarty, who conceived the project and wrote several of the plays, developed the other plays with our many talented playwrights and produced a workshop of the concept last year at Penny Farthing in the East Village. He took the brilliant approach of inviting 17 playwrights to develop each scene and storyline. That brought a very broad array of perspectives to Play/Date and it also yielded a structure that is very modular. This has enabled us to work with each scene as its own short play and story. That was very straightforward. From there we developed certain characters and added others that we could feature in other ways, in some instances extending characters from the plays so that the performers could take on the personality that the playwrights had rendered and go beyond the words on the page. To that I then brought the idea of extending certain characters beyond the space itself into a variety of social media platforms so that the backstory of these “characters” was accessible. This allowed the “show,” or experience, to begin long before someone entered Fat Baby and long after they left. The impact of the social media stuff has been really surprising and awesome. I hope people explore it, as there is a lot there.

Bonus question:

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A major funder gives you a $500K commission to devise must feel like a large-scale, installation-style project, but it must be set in one of those 325-square-foot micro-mini apartments that was proposed by the Bloomberg administration. What’s the project about and why?
Assuming you mean that this one apartment was the whole venue, I would divide the space up into 20 four-foot-by-four-foot rooms and have people go through one at a time. I don’t necessarily link size and scale. In fact, maybe because of the large-scale nature of much of my work in theatre and installation art, I’ve had a long term practice of doing very small-scale sculptural work, often using small boxes and books, that render huge-scale scenes in tiny miniature, offering the observer a unique and sort of cinematic perspective.

Assuming this 325-square-foot space could be one stop along a bigger journey, it would be part of a production I’m actually working on called Paradiso, which continues my fascination with The Divine Comedy and is an immersive theatrical experience that will take people out into the city where installations at different locations will render a version of the nine circles of hell, purgatory and paradise. Locations will include a parked car, a hotel room and a bodega, among others, and a nightclub called Paradiso. Many of the locations will be under 325 square feet, but the $500K might be tight.

Either way, I guess, it would be based on The Divine Comedy, which is to say Life.