Communication strings – “The Virtual Dinner Party”

Jake Witlen is the founder of the „Internationalists“ a group of directors from all around the world. Jake’s productions do not limit themselves to classic theatre means, making use of film and multimedia. For „The Virtual Dinner Party“ he implemented his interest for technology and new media into the action. Berlin and New York meet for a vibrant and buzzing dinner party in real time. How you might ask? Via Skype and a big screen, merging both tables at their middles.

The „Virtual Dinner Party“ is a multi-layered, ambitious production. What seems simple at first glance unfolds its meaning step by step and only after the spectators go home. What they take with them from the one hour long and real-time get together is a 360° experience. They’ve become part of the play and hence an incalculable variable. The actors guided their guests through the dinner like hosts.

I met Jake in a coffee-shop inside a Commerzbank near U-Bahn Stadtmitte. Hidden in its monetary system-overlooking belly, passing cash points and helpdesks, sprang out of nowhere, an island: An artificially created living room with sofas, libraries full of books and fluffy carpets you know your feet will unfortunately never touch, being confined to their street shoes.

 We talked about the background of his play and its means of transferring a message. Surrounded by technological gadgetry and the atmosphere of richness, we dug into the layers Jake’s play. It’s a tapestry of connections made in our digital age. It’s about relationships with and through new media, choices you make, questions you ask and how everything silently flows together.

Are you closer to film or to theatre?

I am more of a theatre person. I love the way audience and actors interact. This is not really possible in the movies. Because in theatre audience and actors share a moment of true connectivity which lies beyond technology. Technology serves establishing a connection, it becomes a door you can use. In theatre it is more about sharing the same air, the same experience at the same moment. Emotionality plays a big role.

So tell me, why did you choose a dinner party as a starting point?

Because a dinner party is something very personal. Something you do among friends and family And there is something really basic about sharing food, something primal. No matter where you do it or who does it, the act of sharing food is universal and makes connecting easier.

Define your stage, please.

The table is and becomes the stage in every way possible. It’s a reflection of life. It’s there you become most intimate, because you share food and drink. You relax and you let your guard down, even cultural differences.

Connecting and connection seem to be key elements inside your play. You merged two tables from two different countries by using Skype as a link.

Yes, because aside from the action taking place, the main question for me always is: Are we really connected? Is real emotional connection via the internet and through all the technical means surrounding us to be truly achieved? I try to explore if people can actually breath the same air and feel in the same way, even if the bridge is built digitally. I want to create true emotional experience by using technology and letting the participants use it.

How many layers are there inside „The Virtual Dinner Party“?

Well, there is the real life layer represented by the audience invited to dine on-stage. Then there are the actors, which can be taken as a second layer and a third one, the technical and digital one, making the connection between the cities possible.

What was the idea behind this border-crossing and distance neglecting play?

Well, the main idea was to raise questions. We want the audience to think about „hunger“. What does it mean to be hungry and to struggle with the lack of resources. The play kicks off at a point in which the world is running out of supplies of any kind. The audience should discuss this topic openly and discover their responsibilities and what they can do, if ever having to face such a scenario.

How does this work? It must not be easy to entice strangers inside such a complex discussion.

Yes, especially because it is not meant to be a didactic play. It rather is a social experiment. It is scripted-reality inside reality. Virtuality and the actors connect them both. The first of difficulties was to relax the participants, make them feel comfortable. We chose not only the soothing atmosphere of a dinner but also some games via screen to start with, to ease and loosen up the tension.

But the most powerful elements are visuality and exchange, right?

True. Conversation becomes the driving force. Because via the internet for example, chats are misleading. Even an email can be misleading, ‚cause you never get to experience the full picture of your partner. But with Skype those limits are broken down a little. Because you can see your partner. You see mimics and gesticulation, you get the whole package. The voice is a very powerful tool and transmitter as well.

We already talked about Skype and technology, but could you define your relationship to and with multimedia?

I think, that we have to accept multimedia and technology as part of our world. It is everywhere. It is powerful, because it surrounds us and connects us and still we do not recognize it for what it is. Our age is the age of the global village. Of mass communication and constant connection. It is important though, that we make use of technology in the right way. That we do not become the ones being used by it.

When and how are you using technology then?

It is easy to put a projection on stage nowadays. And most of the new productions do it, Carelessly. Because it is fancy, looks flashy and is an eye-catcher. It is sexy but empty most of the time. It doesn’t have a message or a real importance. In my opinion the medium used, should establish a link between the audience and the actors and have an impact.

How did you work with the actors, considering the distances?

This is actually funny, because throughout the whole working process technology always got in the way. Rehearsals couldn’t take place virtually at times, because of computers crashing or technical stuff not working out. But my rehearsals are really different each time. It has been based a lot on personal interaction, because I have been to New York 13 times last year. I had the possibility to work live with my actors as well. But before me travelling there it was sort of a play by itself. It was an on/off relationship all the time.

 A play while creating a play?

Yes. I wanted the actors to discover the path they should take themselves. I discussed with them a lot via email, spammed their inboxes and sent over loads of video material, texts and blogs. We also talked via Skype about the play and its directions and what we wanted to achieve with it. I always wanted them to find out themselves what the play should be about or what would be best to ask.

How do you want your audience to leave the theatre?

Best would be, if they left the collective conscience with lots of raised questions and doubt about the status quo of our society. It is always good to know what is going on around you. And it is always good to ask questions.

It is about heightening awareness then?

Yes, as well. I want them to be able to transfer themselves into that „what if the world ran out of resources scenario“ and think about what they could actually do on an everyday basis to avoid or solve the problem. I want them to think about the choices they make everyday and see if improvements could be made. I want them to take the experience outside the theatre, exactly like reality nowadays is taken to the internet.

One last question. What do you think of Berlin and the 100° as a place to unfurl your play at?

100° is really flexible. It is creative and limitless from the basics of its concept. And Berlin has an interesting audience: It is still very open minded, free spirited and sceptical. Germans in general ask a lot of questions and are, as history shows very analytic about all. They learned to be patient and hold themselves back. Berlin features the right environment to make art thrive, because it still is curious about art itself and its value.

Anna Lazarescu

Jake Witlen : The Virtual Dinner Party