Sunday, August 02, 2020

Virtual Fringe 2020 Review - #txtshow (on the internet) - Brian Feldman - Dazzling and Nimble Performance Work - 5 stars

Tweet review: One last visit to the Digital Hub for virtual #mnfringe 2020 to round out the evening: #txtshow (on the internet); zoom audience writes performer's dialogue in real time; we were competing monkeys on keyboards; non sequiturs abounded, but quite fun; brilliant - 5 stars

Show description: "The best show you’ll write all year, “#txtshow (on the internet)” is a completely immersive multiscreen performance featuring a script written anonymously in real-time by a live audience (on the internet). (Based entirely upon what audience members write in anonymity, this event may contain mature themes, profane language, and explicit sexual content.) 45 minutes

Coincidentally, the performer Brian Feldman reached out to me about the Digital Hub offering #txtshow (on the internet) right after I'd already done some homework poking around on his website to learn some more about the kind of performances he creates.  Spoiled as I am by normally having the whole month of July prior to opening night to peruse reams of information on all the shows in the Fringe on the festival's website, this year I was really on my own to do detective work.  Other than a couple of press releases in my email box and whatever event info artists had posted on Facebook, it was kind of slim pickings.  But a Facebook event page was enough to point me to Feldman's website chronicling his other work so I was intrigued.

#txtshow (on the internet) is the pandemic version of a show he's been doing for years.  Normally people show up in the appointed venue and then just send Feldman anonymous posts using their phone (the production provides them with anonymous twitter accounts, if I'm remembering the reviews correctly).  Here anonymity is provided by the new Zoom performance environment.  One of the first things you do after you log into the "meeting" is go into the list of participants and rename yourself as Anonymous.  That way neither the performer nor your fellow audience members knows who's typing what lines of dialogue (you can see the whole script emerging in real time over on the chat side of the screen).  

You tend not to pay too close attention to that scroll, however, because the performance is so fascinating.  In fact, I frequently dropped out of "Gallery Mode" just so I could see Feldman's face better.  When the entire audience AND the performer are all just tiny boxes on a screen, sure you get a bit more of a feel of the audience, live together in real time.  But I was technologically challenged at that hour and couldn't get anything on a screen larger than my laptop, so everyone's many faces were equally tiny when we were all on screen at once.  If I switched over the "Speaker" mode, I got a nice big screen of the performer at work.

This did put me at a disadvantage, however, when someone's dog wandered onto their screen, and other people became enamored of the dog and started writing dialogue about the dog.  Such as, you know, "DOG!!"  I had to bring everyone back on screen together so I could see for myself and figure out what was going on.  Your audience distractions may vary.

Feldman has a Screen Manager (Genny Yosco) rather than a stage manager because, well, it's a screen not a stage.  She welcomes everyone into the stream and makes sure everyone knows the rules and how the whole thing works.  The production sends you a program with instructions that they ask you to peruse before you log on, so you're not going into this cold.  They've got the routine down, and want to make sure you're comfortable with it before the whole thing begins.  Degree of difficulty points for the fact that Genny and Brian are not in the same time zone as the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and he's also doing some other overlapping festivals at the same time in still more parts of the country.  So they can have some very full days or long nights doing this thing.  Impressive logistics.

The way #txtshow (on the internet) works is that Brian Feldman, after he walks in and sits down at the table, quite literally does and says nothing that is not typed for him by the audience.

If nobody types anything, I guess he just sits there for 45 minutes.
But everyone's a playwright.  Or maybe everyone just likes being a puppetmaster.

Since everyone's anonymous, there's no point in being shy.

There's always someone who will type, "I want to tell you the story of how I was once nearly eaten by a bear," just to kick things off.

Some people will then start talking about the type of bear it was, and the various types of bears there are, and perhaps it was this kind or that kind, interesting bear-related trivia, etc.

I decided to type, "Unfortunately at the time, I was completely covered in honey" - and for some reason at that point we were suddenly off to the races.

Some people wanted to explore the whole "human being covered in honey idea" from a provocative standpoint.  Others created a honey festival.  Others wanted to talk about bees.  Someone really wanted to talk about dinosaurs so suddenly he found a fossil in the lake as part of the story.  Someone else really wanted to discuss space aliens and anal probes (because there's always somebody in any group, am I right?)

And of course, we're all typing in real time, all these potentially competing storylines and conversational threads (with side trips to things like people's dogs).  And Feldman needs to speak this dialogue in the completely random order it shows up on his screen.  This is how you know he's an adept performer.  He kept juggling all this in his head as he went, returning to topics as we did, making it all seen completely conversational, if a bit nonsensical or full of non sequiturs at times.  It was delightful in its adeptness and absurdity.

I suddenly realized I could also ask him to do things like a stage direction that says (checks under the table), and he would do it.  I returned to that one a couple of times.  I like a good callback, verbal or behavioral.

Someone else got the clever idea to have him say, "Ask me a question" and be very insistent about it.  And so we did.  And then someone else would have to type so he could answer.

Still another anonymous author thought a good recurring bit would be "Knock Knock" jokes.  He would say "Knock Knock," we would say "Who's there?"  Someone would type what he would say as the set up.  We'd respond "(Random phrase) who?"  And then he'd raise a finger as if to say "wait" while he awaited someone to write the punchline for him.  We returned to this a few times and it was actually kind of fun, if not always comedically satisfying from a joke writer's standpoint.

If everyone hits their seven minute lull in the conversation at the same time, the performer could be just sitting and waiting for new words.

If someone asks him to perform a task that takes a while, he may return to a backlog of dialogue he needs to run through.

Unexpectedly, I wrote the last line when I typed, "I will miss you when you go" for him to say to the audience.  I knew our time was running short, but I didn't realize it was time to finish.  Lucky guess.

This show could really be anything.  Brian Feldman can clearly do anything, say anything.  I mean, you shouldn't ask him to do something dangerous, obviously, but if you type it, it will happen.

Depending on the group you get, your show will vary.  This one's actually worth a return visit.  I mean, I'm sure some people just sat there and watched the whole time and didn't type a thing.

I feel weird just staring at a performer if I know they're expecting help.  So I type.

And don't worry, you contribution doesn't have to be good.  The strange juxtapositions of everyone's stream of consciousness, coupled with Feldman's skill at performing on the fly, means you'll look good anyway.

And again, everyone's anonymous.  Nobody knows it was you (unless they recognize your writing style, which seems like a very rare occurrence.  Did someone know the lines I wrote at the time?  They do now.)

Just fascinating.  Dazzling and nimble performance work.  And a concept that, as much as anything can these days, really helped bond a group of people together in a common experience, even though we couldn't share it in the same space.

These days, that's a gift.  I'm glad I finished my Fringing day with this one.

#txtshow (on the internet) has three more performances in our time zone (CDT) during our Virtual Fringe (though I suppose you could always hop over to one of the other festivals' schedules as well).  For us, there's Monday, August 3 at 9pm, Thursday, August 6 at 9pm, and Sunday, August 9 at 5pm (that day is also the 17th anniversary of Brian Feldman Projects, but why take a day off to celebrate when you can do it with virtual playwright friends making you do and say potentially ridiculous things, right?)

You may see me there again sometime soon on the Digital Hub.  I'm curious to see what a different group of spectators creates for (and with) him.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

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