The Disorientalism of Continuous City

A high-tech troupe tries some digital globe-hopping

You won't find Marianne Weems, artistic director of the Builders Association, on Facebook or MySpace. Running a theater company on top of heading Carnegie-Mellon's directing department provides her with more than enough social networking. "The last thing I need at the end of the day," she says with a laugh, "is to hear from like 250 more people." But Weems is no digital neophyte: Her glossy stage productions—created with an onstage coterie of designers, technicians, and performers—invariably come loaded up with streaming video and bleeping digital relays. That, says Weems, is because she's interested in the new social fabrics that 21st-century media create, not the gleaming gadgets themselves.

The idea for the multimedia group's newest piece, Continuous City—which runs at BAM's Next Wave Festival November 18 to 22—stems from Weems's relationship with her seven-year-old goddaughter, who lives in Indiana. The two spend a lot of time iChatting on video. Weems, now in her mid-forties, started to wonder: "How do children perceive connection? How are they assimilating, in a healthy way, the idea that iChatting is connection?"

Continuous City—written by Harry Sinclair and directed by Weems—centers around a little girl who sits at home tracing her road-warrior father's movements across continents and time zones. Weems wants the piece to evoke the "dislocation and displacement and the compression of geography that's brought on by contemporary technologies." She stresses that she's also teasing out the phenomenon's humorous side: "The whole visual pleasure in the show, with visual jokes, is about mistaking places—thinking that you're in one place and finding you're in another."

Weems and company experienced that disorientation firsthand as part of the creative process: The video team traveled to Shanghai, Los Angeles, Tijuana, Toronto, and Las Vegas to shoot footage meant to appear from the perspective of the globe-trotting central character (who never appears onstage).

Despite all the travel, the group remains on familiar artistic terrain. Since founding the New York performance group in 1994, Weems has set her sights on networked technology and its impact on global infrastructure and individual identity. Jet Lag (1998), created with New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, explored the true story of a woman enmeshed in a child-custody battle, who took 167 consecutive transatlantic flights until she died of jet lag. Alladeen, mounted in 2003 with the British ensemble Motiroti, depicted Bangalore's call centers and customers. Super Vision, their 2005 Next Wave offering, dealt with data and domesticity.

Those productions, the director now says, formed a trilogy centered on identifiable issues. But she sees Continuous City as a break: "It's much more impressionistic and more, dare I say, emotional."

This time, Weems is also going 3G, incorporating new interactive elements into the live performance. One of the characters is an Internet mogul launching an enterprise named "Xubu." So Weems and her colleagues—who recently worked with Yahoo's media lab while in residence at UC Berkeley—created a real-life website (xubu.cc) and invited visitors to contribute video testimonials describing their "transnational experiences." Contributions will be culled, and selected segments will appear in each evening's performance, which Weems estimates is about a third improvised. ("They're like a Greek chorus," she theorizes about the clips.)

How all these strands will intersect remains to be seen when the house lights dim and the machines boot up. But Weems hopes the show's dramaturgy can help enlarge the American theater's intellectual bandwidth, while allowing audiences to take a fresh look at the connections—virtual and otherwise—we think we've secured. "It's both a celebration," she says, "and a critique."

 
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