PCV director: The future of theater is on your smartphone

A woman rides the N train, along one of three routes where the site-specific plays are meant to be listened to on a smartphone. (Photo courtesy of Erin Mee)

By Sabina Mollot

A Peter Cooper Village resident who once directed a play designed to be downloaded as an app and listened to on the Staten Island ferry has recently released a series of plays that, like “Ferry Play,” is meant to be experienced on one’s smartphone.

The new production, “Subway Plays,” is a trilogy of plays that are intended to be listened to on the L, N and 7 trains. Though they can be played anytime, the audio performance should be accompanied by a specific route: either Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens for act one, or Brooklyn or Queens while headed to Manhattan. The site-specific plays, which are told in English, also include other languages such Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian and Colombian Spanish that would typically be heard along the route.

The plays come in the form of an app, which costs $2.99 and can be downloaded on an iPhone or Android.

Erin Mee said she first got the idea to do a downloadable play from a Canadian theater company that specialized in what was referred to as “pod plays.” She ultimately decided to refer to her own project as a “smartphone play,” since iPods have mostly gone out of use and she didn’t want people to get confused. Additionally, she stressed that this type of play is different from an old-time radio play or an audio tour one might hear in a museum. This is because it’s site-specific with the sights, sounds and smells of the environment factoring into the story and overall experience.

“It’s a mix of the recording, which never changes, and what they see and hear and smell and touch, which always changes,” said Mee. There are three plays and they’re very specific. If you listen to the 7 train play on the L train, it won’t make any sense at all.”

While the plays are scripted (written by Jenny Lyn Bader, Jessie Bear and Colin Waitt), Mee added that each one doesn’t have a single storyline. Rather, the audience hears numerous stories surrounding various train riders.

Mee compared it to the everyday experience of being on the train, while at the same time being able to “hear inside everyone’s head and listen to their private conversations.”

Photo by June Xie

One topic in the stories is gentrification in neighborhoods, experienced by a couple in one play looking for an apartment. Immigration is another topic, with a young boy on one train who at one point asks his grandmother not to speak Chinese in public because it embarrasses him and a girl who tries to hide how strict her Greek grandmother is with her. Homelessness is, in keeping with the true nature of the subway, an omnipresent issue, touched on in each play.

In one of them, “You have some clueless people in their early 20s who are going to a party about homelessness and they’re dressed as homeless people,” said Mee. “And then they encounter a homeless person. (The stories) make you think about the city in a different way. There are oddball, New York characters.” For the most part, the plays are English, with a sentence here and there in other languages.

“You only have to go with it for a line or two,” said Mee of the other languages, “but I do think it would be interesting to miss out on the meaning. Especially now when there’s this anti-immigrant feeling and this notion that we should all speak English. I think it’s interesting to have a moment where we don’t have access to that information.”

Mee said it doesn’t matter what time someone listens to the 20-23-minute-long plays, but she doesn’t recommend rush hour, when everyone’s too jammed into one another to focus on a story, unless their daily commute requires traveling along the aforementioned trains anyway.

“This might be one way to survive the commute,” she noted.

Erin Mee (Photo by June Xie)

Mee finished “Subway Plays” last fall, but has just begun promoting them. Meanwhile, she is already at work on another piece meant to be experienced on the High Line. Meanwhile, she said the feedback and press she got surrounding her earlier effort in 2015, “Ferry Play,” has been positive and she expects that the concept of the smartphone play will soon come into wider use.

“I think they’re very accessible,” she said. “You don’t have to spend $100 on a theater ticket and show up at a certain time in your fancy clothes. It’s less than a dollar a play and you of course have to use your MetroCard.”

So far the challenge seems to be getting people to focus, not on the necessary technology, but on their surroundings.

“What we are asking you to do is download the app, put your earbuds in and then look around at the windows and the people around you instead of looking into your own personal space,” Mee said. “We ask you to actively co-create the play with us by mixing in your experience.”

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