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 “Smoke Front”

By Savannah Peykani

Responsibility. Heroes. Morals versus rules. Bureaucracy. Confusion. Desperation. Siblings. Chaos. Fuck the man! Distance versus closeness. Passive aggressiveness. Safety. Fire. Decisions. Privilege.

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The Telematic Project is a piece of haunting, suspenseful theatre that just so happens to take place on more than one stage. Photo courtesy of Vincent Olivieri.

This potpourri comprises the smattering of audience-suggested themes thrown out during the twenty minutes following the Telematic Project’s production of “Fire Road” and “Smoke Front” last Friday night; it was a part of a theatrical proof-of-concept in which two plays with two different plots, and set in two locations overlapped at critical moments via livestream broadcast.

Vincent Olivieri, associate drama professor who initially conceptualized telematic theatre at UCI, explained, “We are communicating via high speed; both plays have their own stories and arcs but they intersect at key points.”

These key points revolve around communication between a disaster-response corporation in Seattle and on-the-ground victims in Los Angeles following a disastrous Southern California earthquake. Siblings Martin and Gabby Santos function as the main characters for each play, one held in the xMPL Theatre and the other in CalIT2. The siblings communicate via video conference call and, individually, deal with the dilemmas proposed after the show.

Choosing between what is morally right and following orders sat as the focal conflict for the plays. Martin must decide whether to listen to his boss silently or take action against corruption, while Gabby faces the choice of who to save and how with the pressures of inefficient protocol weighing on her.

With graduation and the plunge into the real world looming closer and closer, this option to presumably sell out only feels more relevant. Do we take that risk and launch ourselves into our creative, passion projects? Or do we fall privy to financial desperation and work as a corporate automaton? Maybe it doesn’t have to be that black and white, as Martin’s character tries to find a compromise. What if your creative passion does lie in a more white-collar world? Can we really criticize the inevitable necessity of capitalism and immediately castrate everyone who wants to be a part of that world? “Smoke Front” introduces the audience to all of these questions, but offers very few answers, and leaves viewers to unravel the web of multimedia and multiplicity.

In the xMPL, “Smoke Front” consisted of five screens of various sizes, matching five desks arranged on stage. The screens swarmed with montages of newsreel footage and Emergency Alert System Tests, blaring the motif of natural disasters throughout the intimate theatre. As the chaos on screen accelerated, so too did the inter-personal tension between the characters. Broken relationships, family tragedies and office politics all culminate into several paralyzing scenes expressing heartache and discontent.

Immediately after the chaotic displays, another montage of newsreel footage played.

“Smoke Front” constantly tugged at two binaries: the development of technology set against the malleability of human relationships. This is where playwright Tira Palmquist’s plots shined most, where a refreshingly objective take on how technology impacts communication. In an age where technological discourse focuses on the negatives—so much that it tarnishes society’s ability to have a “real conversation” or think critically—seeing both the benefits and disadvantages of computerization brought to stage opened my eyes as a consumer and as a person. Yes, in a crisis we can now communicate with loved ones thousands of miles away, but we still can’t find the remote to unmute the television.

“Fire Road”

By Jared Alokozai

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Photo courtesy of Vincent Olivieri.

Two rooms, two casts, two directors and two entirely unique scripts for two entirely unique plays, all connected by a webcam and a calamitous earthquake. Last week, from Apr 14 through 16, producer Vincent Olivieri and playwright Tira Palmquist made the first step toward realizing their Telematic Project – a boundary-warping theatre production that uses live webcams to connect two plots centered around a single natural disaster, one storyline set in a federal bureau in damp, “fire-resistant” Seattle and the other on a military facility in the dry-shrub suburbias of Los Angeles.

Devastation overtakes Southern California after a high-magnitude quake levels entire towns and municipalities, devastating any sense of social order. The two plays, called Fire Road and Smoke Front Palmquist, endeavored to create two separate dramatic arcs through the perspective of two groups of survivors,, which occasionally intersect with the well-timed use of a live webcam stream.

The Calit2 building’s EVoKE lab hosted Fire Road, one half of the workshop project that tells the suspenseful story of a federal emergency facility director’s struggle between her duty and her instincts. Should she compromise her allegiance to military hierarchy in the face of muddled and confusing disaster?  Does protocol supercede doing the right thing?

A demoralized citizen militia formed in a parched, hungry and newly homeless neighborhood, headed by the director’s first-cousin no less, lays amateur siege to the military campus where valuable trucks, planes and supplies lay in frustrating bureaucratic paralysis amidst the crisis.

Fire Road boasted a palatable, small cast of undergraduate student actors tackling a variety of roles, and despite having only three weeks of rehearsal, they put on a convincing performance with script in hand. Palmquist, using the analogous high stakes of a mass catastrophe and the moral ambiguity of a glutted bureaucracy to express the thematic possibilities of the Telematic Project.

A year and a half in the works, Olivieri says that he planted the initial kernel of this project, but that script authority lay with Palmquist. Fire Road and Smoke Front are her realizations of just one possibility among many in interconnected theatrics. As it is just the first step in a longer, ongoing project, Palmquist took advantage of  practical and accessible technology in its most familiar form: a Skype call. Indeed, the plays played with the technology in a literal, functional, though somewhat, pedestrian manner.

These plays, if  anything, showcased Palmquist’s clever scripting to accommodate live stream technology to some degree, setting a precedent for how to organically infuse video-streaming technology with a conventional drama.

Teleconference calls and one instance of webcam espionage comprise the bulk of the Telematic Project’s boundary-pushing within Fire Road’s plot, but as was preambled before the play, this is all a workshop, a work in progress, the first few small steps to feel out the true capabilities of this technology.

Olivieri foresees that the Telematic Project can indeed propel further into unmarked theatrical space.

“This was simply a proof-of-concept,” he said. “We showed that it is possible to create accessible, valuable stories using this mode of storytelling, but we’ve also pushed the art form while doing so. There is value in this. I do see more abstraction and more conceptual magic being explored with telematic theatre.”

So, keep an eye out for future elaborations of this potential project, where technology clashes with the stage. And hopefully, in future iterations, the rules of creative engagement might stretch beyond a well-staged Skype call.

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