By Sabina Mollot
A Peter Cooper Village director, who’s previously put on plays in untraditional settings, including the swimming pool at Waterside Plaza — is now inviting theater goers to the Staten Island Ferry — but not until they download her play onto their smartphones.
The show, called “Ferry Play,” is an 18-minute audio recording that was designed to be listened to as commuters experience the ride from Manhattan to Staten Island and then back again.
“It’s the largest set ever,” commented Erin Mee, who directed the production, which was written by Jessie Bear, a playwright from Queens who’s also worked with Mee on other projects. A couple of kids in Mee’s building, along with her teenage daughter, were also involved, voicing different characters.
As for the decision to create a downloadable play, Mee said she was inspired by a Canadian company who’d specialized in “pod plays,” essentially plays that were podcasts. But when Mee began working on her project, she realized her work might need to be called something else, because iPods have largely gone out of use, with most people turning to their phones for their entertainment instead.
“So I started calling it a smartphone play, and they seem to get that,” she said.
The “Ferry Play” app can be downloaded for $1.99 onto iPhones or Androids.
The setting, too, is relevant for the work, with the sights, smells and sounds of the ferry, water and commuters augmented by the recorded sounds of the same things, all contributing to the experience. “You see the State of Liberty, you watch the seagulls, you look at the foam on the water as the ferry plows through,” said Mee.
She stressed that in this way, it is different from the radio plays made popular in the 1930s and 40s.
“My dad grew up with ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and those shows were meant to be listened to with your eyes closed,” Mee said. “It was theater of a kind. They provided all the sound and you provided in your mind’s eye all the visuals. This is different in that you’re supposed to keep your eyes open. You go on to the Staten Island Ferry and you go onto the balcony and you press ‘play.’”
But, she added, listeners may also need to fight their instincts by not checking what’s new on Facebook or texting.
“We’re asking you to engage rather than disengage. We ask you to put the phone on airplane mode so you don’t accidentally get a text in the middle.”
So far, based on the feedback she’s gotten on the play, which was released two weeks ago, listeners have found the interactive dialogue refreshing, albeit a tad jarring. Mee recalled how one woman told her she instinctively kept looking over her shoulder behind her as she listened, to see who was speaking to her.
Far from being a solitary experience, the play has set up various characters who ride the ferry with the listener, and it incorporates real people. For example, there’s a point where a voice instructs the listener to check out what another fellow rider is up to.
Because, said Mee, “When you ride the ferry, there will always be a person there.”
As for the storyline, Mee said there isn’t so much a traditional plot as an experience that’s aimed at getting listeners to contemplate their place in the city.
And of course, if listeners choose to experience the play more than once, there is the chance one day’s show could be wildly different from the last, with different commuters, weather and the times of day they choose to go all being variables.
These factors, Mee noted, are also what help keep the play from straying too far from traditional theater and becoming too much like a lecture at a museum. “We all know what it’s like to go on an audio tour,” said Mee. “This is really a play.”
For more information about “Ferry Play,” visit thisisnotatheatercompany.com.
Up next for Mee and Bear and This is Not a Theater Company, the company they founded in 2013, will be “Readymade Cabaret,” running from April 25-May 28 at Judson Church. In this show, the scenes that are performed and the order in which they are performed will be decided by a roll of the dice.
Mee has also directed plays for New York Theatre Workshop, Ontological in St. Mark’s and SoHo Rep, along with theaters in other cities and in India. She’s an assistant professor at New York University in the Department of English’s program in dramatic literature and has written a book, The Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, that was published in 2009 by Seagull Books and Palgrave-McMillan.