Think of the theater, and you think of a curtain, a proscenium, a rack of lights. Characters enter and exit; a story is told. But how, within that narrow framework, will theater keep up with times so modern that all the action seems to be shifting into newer, more technologically driven environments? That's the question LIDA Project artistic director Brian Freeland and collaborating playwright Tami Canaday tackle in Alice, a new production opening Friday that explores the life and writings of Lewis Carroll -- creator of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass -- and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the real-life model for Alice, as they might play out in cyberspace.
Based partly on information gathered last year on www.good-evil.org, an ongoing Internet bulletin board they initiated, Freeland and Canaday created the finished piece on line in real time, documenting the entire process as it unfolded. Then they had to determine the best way to frame merging environments on stage. "We focused on the behaviors of chat rooms, on how we actually communicate with machines," Freeland says. "Our ultimate premise was to explore how we create new environments in a digital world: For instance, with the onset of digital worlds, is it possible to have a theatrical experience in the computer? And can computers experience the theatrical?"
In a way, Carroll and Liddell are their guinea pigs. "The piece resembles a real chat room, in that you have multiple voices and characters, including a lot of unwanted characters or commentary," Freeland notes. "And the whole time, these two people are trying to make a connection with one another." Into that environment the playwrights injected a counterbalance between the painfully buttoned-down Victorian world, where much of the action took place behind closed doors, and the present, a place where repression seems to be making a comeback, though with a twist.
"The Internet is a place where people can be themselves completely -- they really feel their personalities," Freeland says. "A girl can be an older woman, or a man can be a young boy, and those things happen with very little resistance. Yet Wonderland is a world where reality does exist, does follow rules -- but those rules have to be decoded. Things are hidden, much in the way Carroll wrote the actual works, using anagrams and codes upon codes. A lot lies underneath what is, on the surface, a childish story."
For now, LIDA's philosophical foray into Wonderland/Cyberspace takes place solely on the stage, though Freeland hopes it can be opened up, part by part, to online audiences: "There's still plenty of room within the piece for future iterations, where people might actually direct elements, such as sound and lights, over the Internet. That's the ultimate vision for this piece: To have two types of audiences -- one sitting in an actual, legitimate theater and one sitting in front of a monitor. Both would be having the same type of experience, yet in different physical locations."
And that's a start: "I don't know how long our way of telling stories in a sterile, presentational, theatrical way will continue to happen," Freeland notes. "Either we'll be so hungry for direct human contact that we'll start to see more campfire-type theater, with people in small groups telling an intimate story, or we're going to see a hybrid of technotheater that doesn't have to take place in the theater itself.
"One very rarely even sees computers in the theater, even in contemporary drama -- not even as part of a set decoration. Yet, most of us interact with computers at least once a day. It's such an ingrained part of us now, yet we choose to ignore that when we tell stories. The closest we get is when we say, 'You gotta check out this Web site!' That's as interesting as it gets."