Virtual Theatre in Puerto Rico
By Amanda Vilanova
A pair of lips that are a homage to Samuel Beckett’s Not I speak to us with instructions. We are asked to repeat the following statement: ‘Theatre is not virtual; it is face to face’. It’s apparent that these lips don’t agree with this statement. They end the Manifesto-Performance with the following words:
…Alright, it isn’t theatre. If it’s a matter of linguistics, if the word is the problem, let’s change it. Let’s call it experience or provocation. We will no longer be theatre makers, we will be provocateurs…But if we cannot call it theatre, if it is excluded because it does not comply with the elitist conception of what theatre ‘is’, then LET’S KILL THE THEATRE.
It was June 2020. Most of us were sort of figuring out what was going on, trying not to get sick, taking up a hobby and attempting not to overeat; but Janilka Romero in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico had other things on her mind. An accomplished theatre maker and performer, she was asking herself big questions about her chosen medium. What does theatre in our times look like? What should my response be? An understandable fear that Covid-19 could be the end of many things as we knew them meant she was surrounded by artists clinging to the idea that true theatre only happens in person. Janilka decided to respond by writing and presenting a Virtual Theatre Manifesto live on Zoom. She did so a number of times and even performed a version in English.
Cited out of context, the final lines of the piece may seem like a series of angry statements, but as I tuned in from London on the other side of the world, I was struck by the humour and the verve of the piece. The lips tutted, smiled, and laughed, accompanied by upbeat techno music as they defined theatre, real and virtual. They mocked institutions’ fear of change, challenged us to rise to the occasion and invited us to take the opportunity to make theatre a more equitable, representational, and modern experience. The piece also set out ten brave rules for the making of Virtual Theatre.
Theatre has been dying for years or at least we’ve been talking about its inevitable demise for some time. Lack of accessibility, high costs and elitism are only a few of the issues present in the discussion of theatre’s relevance, power, and place within our society. However, theatre seems to persist, mainly because a host of us absolutely love it. As a member of this group, the active call to kill the theatre moved me. How exactly do you kill the theatre? And what will this ‘murder’ create? From the manifesto, the theatre company La Uve was born with four theatre makers (Janilka Romero, Michael Vélez, Luis Ra Rivera and Adriana González) who set out to create digital theatre exclusively. They followed up with a set of ‘etudes’, to test their definition of virtual theatre.
Etude no.1, presented in September 2020, was a self-produced investigation of camera shots and sounds. Three characters were confined inside their homes, a couple in the same house and a third person who observes them without their consent. The voice overs, the only dialogue in the piece, gave us sections of speech as the images turn violent, the relationships frayed and suffocating. The storytelling was aided by music, movement and four cameras shooting the same image from different angles. They also incorporated the use of dolls and masks to move the story forward. Watching it live was exciting and I was impressed by its sleek camera angles, transitions, and effects. Though not perfect, it was a far cry from Zoom theatre pieces of the time. It was like watching live cinema. It sold out and was revived for a second set of performances in March 2021.
La Uve and its proposal of virtual theatre had arrived, and its implications were thrilling, particularly for Latin American theatre makers. Working from Puerto Rico, Janilka and her colleagues were making exciting digital theatre from their homes.
Etude no. 2 quickly followed with a completely different approach: two scripted micro-theatre pieces by Puerto Rican writer Alejandra Ramos Riera. Micro-theatre is a well-known medium on the island, often staged in pop-up venues, so it seemed fitting that La Uve would present its own version. The pieces were joyous. The first was a fresh take on two strangers stuck in an elevator (a clown and a fun-loving hypochondriac who broke the fourth wall with winks and eye rolls to the audience) and the second a monologue by a woman in a club, seemingly on a drug-induced trip but, as the viewer soon realises, things aren’t what they appear to be. The shots were varied, the transitions unexpected and the stories clear and alive. The Argentinian theatre critic Monica Berman called the piece: ‘a song to experimentation’ and said that its brilliance was in the creative ways it chose to transpose the text from page to live screen.
This transposition was accomplished by the ensemble using a technique called Sequential Playwriting. It is a comic book-based methodology developed by Michael Vélez. He storyboards plays, creating a panel for each moment, and puts these together as a script. Scripts created using Sequential Playwriting function not only as guides for the performance and technical elements of the play, but also as an artform in themselves. They can be read as a graphic novel while serving as an ideal way of capturing the elements of a virtual theatre performance. The technique acknowledges that virtual theatre is primarily a visual medium. The panels can also be integrated into the work itself and indeed were, with powerful effect, in the final moments of Etude no. 2.
Then there’s La Uve’s sense of humour. Etude no. 2’s interval was a riotous DJ set led by Vélez who came onscreen with strobe lights, glow in the dark clothing and stuffed animals. He jumped around to Eddie Amador’s ‘Not Everyone Understands House Music’ and asked the audience to join in with his manic dancing while taking musical requests. Suddenly, the images of audience members joined him onscreen. He would call out names, spotlight particular spectators at random and cheer them into dancing to whatever tune had been requested at the time. Everything from salsa and reggae to house and R&B was danced to by people around the world across their many performances.
This sense of fun reflects La Uve’s outlook as theatre makers. The idea of serious play is at the core of their creative process. There is a balance between serious themes and entertainment, with La Uve taking you on a dizzying adventure.
Following these two pieces, La Uve has not stopped. They have collaborated with theatre companies, presented Etude no. 2 as part of the Argentinian digital theatre festival UAIFAI, and most recently hosted what they called OPUS WEEK. In August 2021, they presented a series of explorations that focused on Instagram’s vertical framing. They wanted to challenge themselves by creating pieces for a platform other than Zoom while preserving the ephemeral nature of theatre within the digital medium. After a series of ‘opuses’ by their main members they opened a call out for national and international artists to explore verticality live on Instagram. They offered mentoring and hosted OPUS WEEK for a week in October with an artist creating and improvising live on Instagram every night.
La Uve is making the statement that virtual theatre is here to stay, and that exploring its possibilities multiplies and extends what theatre can do. They are approaching their practice in an experimental way by trying and sometimes failing but, more importantly, by constantly asking themselves how to produce new and quality work. They use social media outlets, cell phones and comic book-style creation in ways that reflect and comment on our current society. If theatre holds up a mirror to the world, La Uve is using all that the mirror image contains in both what they say and how they say it.
Furthermore, it was born in Puerto Rico, a place unrecognised for its contribution to theatre or art, other than popular music, more broadly. This is theatre by an underrepresented group bravely taking on a challenge that many artforms must face. They’ve decided to embrace change and rise to the occasion. As they spread their wings, we may just see how an approach from a tiny island makes waves across the world or at least demands its place in the conversation.
An Empty Play