Alice Tuan wanted to engage with students of the new Internet generation to experiment with theater adapting in the digital age.
As a playwright in The Two Cities Project, Tuan said the internet is allowing a global conversation and open rehearsal between artists.
The Two Cities Project is a collaboration between the UCLA Department of Theater and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Tuan and British playwright Bola Agbaje have been working with 13 students at UCLA and 15 students at LAMDA, respectively, to experiment with exercises pertaining to the theme of migration.
The playwrights, directors and students developed loose material the past three to six weeks, culminating in their first performance Friday. Using a broadband Internet connection to project live video, the groups informally shared their interpretations of the theme of migration for 45 minutes each.
The two playwrights traveled across the Atlantic to switch roles on Saturday, bringing their play ideas to the students and directors of the other city to get new thoughts, Tuan said. They will again share their exercises this Friday via video.
“The piece isn’t just being done to (the actors), the piece is something that they’re really actively a part of creating,” said Tom O’Connor, co-director and a UCLA associate professor of theater. “It’s like we’re climbing inside the playwright’s brain and helping her come up with ideas.”
Co-director Joe Olivieri, a UCLA associate professor of theater, said LAMDA has created devised works between actors and playwrights for years, and a year ago UCLA decided to follow. Thus, the schools started an international partnership to share one another’s work, Olivieri said.
The goal is for the playwrights to turn the material from actors’ exploratory exercises into a full-length play, O’Connor said.
First-year theater student Kristin Hwang said acting in The Two Cities Project enabled her to ponder sides of migration and identity, as she was born in California but lived in South Korea until high school.
“I imagined being able to tell my story as a foreigner and citizen of the country,” Hwang said. “(The project) helped me flesh out my own idea of what my identity is supposed to be.”
Olivieri and O’Connor said they interpreted the theme of migration broadly, with ideas ranging from tourism to political topics of immigration. The student actors are from countries such as Argentina, Iran, Chile and South Korea, Olivieri said, and incorporate their own views.
“(Tuan) heard the (theme) and said her first association for migration was birds, so that led me to deal with a movement scheme … around the idea of flocking,” O’Connor said.
The activity included students flocking around the campus in unison, but not imitating birds. Tuan said while these first ideas were literal, they morphed into other topics like couples counseling.
During their first video performance on Friday, O’Connor said the students shared sample exercises with LAMDA students in a relaxed setting. The UCLA group demonstrated flocking while an actor read Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s anti-immigration speech, Tuan said. At the end, four gunshots rang out and four actors collapsed onto the floor, feigning death.
The LAMDA students, in turn, examined the meaning of authenticity, such as implications of a Chinese restaurant without Chinese employees, Tuan said. LAMDA created a ranked list of forms of prejudice to discuss judgments.
LAMDA experienced audio issues with occasionally muted sound, Tuan said, though the London actors’ reactions were still visible.
“Our pieces were much more movement-based and a little more metaphorical with the topic, whereas Bola wrote a straight-up scene,” Tuan said. “There was something really great about being able to see on camera the audience reacting to the piece.”
Tuan is currently in London while Agbaje is working with the UCLA actors. The dynamics of the two groups are different, Tuan said, in that London has four female and 11 male actors, whereas Los Angeles has nine female and four male actors. At LAMDA, Tuan will extend the conversation about prejudice and privilege since she said the majority of The Two Cities Project actors from LAMDA are white males.
“I want our students to be thinking about their own possible presence in the world as being larger than it is right now,” O’Connor said. “If nothing else, as long as it gives them an opportunity to conceive of themselves as artists in a larger social milieu, I think we will accomplish something worthwhile.”