‘Interface,’ a new virtual play, tackles the internet’s impact on relationships

"Interface," a virtual play series, runs Friday through Sunday. Those involved are producer Kelundra Smith (clockwise from top left); producer Bridgette C. Burton; and playwrights Quinn Xavier Hernandez, Erin Considine and Marium Khalid. HANDOUT
"Interface," a virtual play series, runs Friday through Sunday. Those involved are producer Kelundra Smith (clockwise from top left); producer Bridgette C. Burton; and playwrights Quinn Xavier Hernandez, Erin Considine and Marium Khalid. HANDOUT

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Three comedies, three dramas span 20 years.

It’s almost fitting that a series of short plays about how the internet has affected our lives over the past 20 years was conceived and birthed during a pandemic.

Forget about where we are now; in a surge with people traveling, having parties, eating inside restaurants and generally moving about like it’s 2019. Think back to the early days of the virus when social distancing seemed like it could become long-term social isolation by necessity. When it felt as though Zoom meetings and Google chats might replace life that’s lived in-person and together, for perhaps years.

Kelundra Smith and Bridgette C. Burton nursed those worries. Longtime friends who majored in theater at the University of Georgia, both have been arts administrators. (Smith is an occasional contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) They watched theaters close because of pandemic restrictions. They wondered when they’d sit in a shoulder-to-shoulder audience again and watch the lights go up on stage.

“I haven’t been in a theater since March,” Smith said last month.

But all over the country, theaters have turned to online performances, whether livestreamed or replays of pre-recorded, older material. Here is where Burton and Smith, both 31, saw a way to speak to the moment. They essentially came up online. Napster, Friendster, MySpace, chatrooms, Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, DMs, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok. How had those mediums already primed us for social distance? How have they affected the ways we relate to each other over the last 20 years?

Burton and Smith tackle those questions in their new virtual production, “Interface,” a collection of six, 15-minute plays. Premiering Dec. 4 and running through Dec. 6, each will be performed and broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook Live. The plays span from the year 2000 to 2023, when, hopefully, the pandemic will be a bad memory and rich history. Three are comedies and three are dramas.

“Chatterbox,” by playwright Quinn Xavier Hernandez, kicks off in 2000, exploring the world of chatrooms. “Sunrise, Sunset” by Amina S. McIntyre, set in 2005 looks at long-distance relationships. “Girl” by Marium Khalid tells a tender story of a family dealing with Alzheimer’s in 2010. “Good Man Hunter” by Erin Considine tackles what it means to be a social media influencer in 2015. “Free Game” by Elliott Dixon, set in 2020 looks at the dilemma of online teaching but through the prism of mass incarceration. Finally, “Long Time, No See” by Smith, asks whether maintaining a friendship through texts and video chats now, is a real substitute for in-person conversation in a 2023, post-COVID world.

The series is the brainchild of producers Kelundra Smith and Bridgette C. Burton. They developed it as a way to keep live theater performances alive, virtually, during the pandemic. HANDOUT
The series is the brainchild of producers Kelundra Smith and Bridgette C. Burton. They developed it as a way to keep live theater performances alive, virtually, during the pandemic. HANDOUT

Credit: Kelundra Smith

Credit: Kelundra Smith

“I’ve been quietly working on scripts, but doing something like ‘Interface’ wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Smith said.

But when she spoke with Burton, they realized it would be months, if not another year, before they could do something on stage. Yet, even a virtual production needs a budget. They applied for a grant for new virtual work from Fulton County Arts and Culture within days of the deadline. One stipulation for applicants was that the project “inspire hope and healing,” Burton said.

“People have been missing the connectivity that theater gives,” Burton said.

They got the $9,450 grant in late summer. Typically, it takes years for a major production to go from concept to stage. Burton and Smith knew they’d have to turn their small project in a fraction of that time. And they would have to do everything online only from auditions to production.

The six playwrights were selected in September.

“They had a month to write the plays,” Burton said.

By October, they were in workshop. Eighty actors auditioned, live or through pre-recorded video. By November the virtual company had its first socially distant rehearsals: 12 actors, three directors, two stage managers, two set designers. All the artists identify as women or people of color.

Khalid wrote, “Girl,” about a family trying to deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s in a grandmother who had dreams of being a Bollywood star. Could using technology help her not only live out those dreams but help her family cope as well?

Told in Urdu and English, the characters are “people you don’t see on stage very often and speaking in a language you don’t hear that often,” Khalid said.

"Girl" is one of six plays that are part of the virtual play series "Interface." The series will be performed live Dec. 4-6. HANDOUT
"Girl" is one of six plays that are part of the virtual play series "Interface." The series will be performed live Dec. 4-6. HANDOUT

Credit: Kelundra Smith

Credit: Kelundra Smith

Burton and Smith told her to write the story she wanted write, unfettered. As an artist of color, she said, the encouragement was freeing.

More challenging was figuring out how to make a virtual play feel like theater, Khalid said.

“I would sit in rehearsals and see things that needed to be adjusted if it felt too stagey or too film like,” she said. “How do you transition a stage play to this format?”

Live streaming will present its own challenges. Instead of Zoom, the producers are using Streamyard and Twitch, a gaming platform. Interactive features to simulate the audience being in a chatroom or seeing text messages have been woven into the performance.

“We’re already preparing to deal with technological glitches,” Smith said. “How do the actors fill time if something happens?”

“Do we need to buy a hotspot for someone, or do we need to loan them a laptop?” Burton said. “I need to buy props today for an actor and have them delivered.”

Riffing off Burton, Smith continued, “the product is not going to look thrown together.”

Both women know the very nature of watching something online at home can encourage distraction. There’s always another tab or notification to click. Then again, back in the days when people packed maskless into auditoriums, there was always the annoying glare from the phone of at least one person who couldn’t quite focus on the live story unfolding in front of them.

Virtual event

“Interface: An Evening of New Virtual Plays”

7:30 p.m., Dec. 4 and Dec. 5; 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 on YouTube and facebook.com/interfacetheater. Tickets: Interface2020.eventbrite.com for a suggested donation of $10. All donations go to the 22 local artists involved in the project.

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