The Orchard

As experienced online ~ July 2022

Darya Denisova, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, and Mark Nelson. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The Experience & How it Works:

The Cherry Orchard is a play being performed in NYC that audiences can attend in person or online. While both audiences see the same performance, how they experience it is slightly different.

Why it’s Interesting, IMHO:

Usually, audiences experience theatre in-person. The pandemic showed how challenging it can be to bring performances online in a compelling manner. Usually, online narrative content is broadcast with certain conventions, as television. With this production, Arlekin Players is attempting a different approach to live, narrative content.

An image and subtitle from early in the online show.

Initial Impression & Critical Discussion:

After a significant sign-in process that spanned several screens, one enters a virtual lobby of sorts where one can use the mouse — via arrow icons on the screen — to move around the space. Ultimately, there is a right direction to go and a right door to eavesdrop at and, if you take too long to arrive there, the show will automatically move you forward. The requirement of participation here was both charming and alarming. It implied that watching this play was not a passive experience, which was exciting. On the other hand, the role of the audience member wasn’t clear, and once you grant permission for the show to use your video, you have no idea when that video is being taken or where it’s being shown. (There is no Zoom-like view of yourself, nor controls to turn the video off at any time during the two hour performance.)

The table on which the audience gets to remove things from a body, much like Hasbro’s Operation.

Early on, there was a game much like Hasbro’s Operation that the at-home audience gets to play. It’s a fun concept for sure, though its purpose isn’t quite clear and it comes at unfortunate time: during a subtitled speech in Russian. At most times during the show, the game would’ve been a fun diversion while listening to the actors’ dialog — in English — while not much was happening on stage. Unfortunately, this was one of the few scenes that required reading subtitles, which also requires focused attention and, so, the audience member’s attention is quite split at this moment.

If you miss the subtitles, you need not worry too much — for better or worse, after this scene but still rather early in the performance, there’s a title card that explains the entire plot of the show. While it assures that the audience understands what’s happening, it also removes nearly all suspense and dramatic tension.

The plot, as shown during The Orchard.

Relieved of the need to be concerned about the story, the audience is free to, intermittently, play around with the technological affordances of the show. At various points, two clickable circles appear on screen, each representing a different camera angle. One is always the “master shot,” the other varies. At one point, it allows you to assume the point of view of an ancillary character — a constable or such. The other times, it’s just an alternative angle. However, in at least two cases, the alternative camera angle “crosses the line,” a big no-no for anyone who’s ever been to film school. While some might argue that rules are made to be broken, breaking them generally works best when done with intention for a certain effect; if there was one here it was either not clear or not effective or both. The intention behind the camera choices doesn’t feel clear.

An example of “crossing the line” as seen in The Orchard.

This lack of clear visual intent goes hand-in-hand with the sense that the role of the audience isn’t clear or consistent. At one point, the audience become bidders at an auction for the cherry orchard. This is a fun and sensible conceit. And this is the one time that some of the online audience is visible to the in-theatre audience and also to themselves on their computer screen. Additionally, there is a button that pops up during this scene to allow the audience to place actual bids on the cherry orchard, for which the winning bidder will, in real life, receive a cherry orchard NFT. Here, both the role of the audience and the impact of their interactivity is clear. By contrast, it becomes even more apparent that the impact of audience interactivity is not clear anywhere else, which begs the question, “Okay, I can click, but why should I?”

Experiential Viewpoint Expression (E.V.E.):

Embodied/Disembodied, 1st/3rd person visual, 3rd person narrative, participant, deity

*The audience begins seemingly as an individual who can walk through a lobby, eavesdrop and operate on someone. However, later their visual and narrative POVs switch and, in moments, the camera choices the audience can make gives them the opportunity to switch between an embodied and disembodied experience.

Note: Not all experiences have stories and not all experiences are games. This is fine; the following sections—Story Anchor and Pillars of Game—are not to judge. As The Look Club is interested in exploring the presence of story and game in immersive narrative experiences, the aforementioned sections evaluate whatever elements of each happen to be present for our collective education and a stronger understanding of the experience’s structure.

Story Anchor:

For the characters’ stories, see summaries for The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov.

The audience’s story, while somewhat challenging to pin down, might go as follows:

When you arrive in a hallway, you eavesdrop on Ranevskaya through a door, and then you are invited to bid on her precious cherry orchard.

Pillars of Game:

Voluntary Participation — check!

Goal — Unclear.

Rules — Unclear.

Feedback — In the opening lobby, when the audience member clicks on the various arrow icons on screen, their view changes as if they are walking through the virtual space. In the operation game, sometimes removing an item worked and sometimes it set off the “alarm.” What made the difference was unclear. Regarding the camera choices, when you click a camera angle icon, it changes the camera angle through which the viewer is watching the play.

Who Should Experience This?

Fans of Jessica Hecht and/or Mikhail Baryshnikov. Those who are curious to have a front-row seat as theatre experiments with cutting edge technology.

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The Look Club

The Look Club

Eve Weston and Jessica Kantor created The Look Club to discusses immersive media through their site www.thelook.club and reviews of immersive stories.