Selfies is an original play for high school students about friendship, social media, cyberbullying, and the power of storytelling. Developed at Sarah Lawrence College, we toured to public high schools around Westchester County, NY. The four characters' stories are told in a series of "selfies," vignettes in which each teen shares his or her backstory with the other characters and the audience.
Because the play deals so centrally with the role of technology in teens' lives, we knew early on that we would be producing a very tech-heavy show. Indeed, given the subject matter, it would have been strange not to. But because of the logistics of producing a touring show, we were faced with some challenges: (1) we would be touring to a variety of spaces, few of which were traditional theatres; (2) we would have a three-person road crew and limited time for setup; (3) all of our equipment had to fit in one van; and (4) all of the technical elements had to be run by a single stage manager.
I knew from the beginning that using QLab was our only viable option, allowing us to coordinate all the design elements so the show could be operated from a single GO button. I elected to run audio playback, a live mic, video, and iPhone cues from a single QLab workspace on a 13" Retina MacBook Pro, with a second computer as a backup. Using only one workspace would simplify setup and make it easier to tightly integrate the different design disciplines when synchronization mattered. For control, we got ourselves a Duck's Echo MIDI remote, and put it on a long USB cable so the stage manager had some freedom of movement. In the end, all of our tech table equipment took around ten minutes to set up and could fit inside a single small suitcase for transport.
Selfies uses music, sound effects, ringtones, and iOS sounds to create a fast-paced environment that feels contemporary and keeps the audience on their toes. From stingers and transitions to Siri conversations, we wanted to make a show that sounded unmistakably like a product of the digital age.
Early in the show, a cell phone rings, and an actor, planted in the audience, interrupts the show to answer it. Because the audience doesn't yet know that the obnoxious person with the loud phone is part of the show, we needed to make this as realistic as possible. For this and most other phone rings, we used StageCaller, an iOS app that takes commands from QLab via OSC over WiFi. We brought our own WiFi router to ensure we had a reliable network. We also assigned one of the extra buttons on the MIDI remote as a hotkey for a backup ringtone cue, which saved the day a couple of times when the phone lost connection.
We wanted to have a single handheld mic that would be used by different actors throughout the show. We used Mic cues in QLab for control, eliminating the need for a mixer. This also allowed us to easily employ AU effects, using different vocal treatments to differentiate characters: from a sports announcer, to a teen songwriter, to the voice of an anonymous Facebook post. The fact that all of this was programmed into the cue list meant that the only thing the SM ever had to adjust was the input level on the interface; the cue timing and FX took care of themselves.
There are essentially three kinds of projections in Selfies: (1) location slides that set the scene and reveal background about the characters through details in the setting; (2) "screen capture" projections that show text messages, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, tweets, and other digital communications that are often essential plot points; and (3) abstract, evocative slides that reflect the mood of a scene or monologue without being overly literal. Frequently these genres intersect: for instance, an iPhone screen appears over the background of a bedroom, and tweets appear in front of the school bulletin board. There are also, of course, the characters' selfies, which conclude each vignette.
Software used for content creation included Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and After Effects; Apple Motion, Keynote, and QuickTime; Squirrels Reflector; and MS PowerPoint (for some ugly school assembly slides). Individual elements of the location slides were created in Photoshop and assembled in InDesign, for a deliberately flat, collaged aesthetic. The "selfies" were actually shot in a studio against a green screen (the most professionally-produced selfies ever) and composited against moving backgrounds in Motion.
Showing the characters' phone screens was essential to telling the story. To get this footage, we streamed an iPhone display to a computer with Reflector and captured the video with QuickTime (Apple disallows screen-recording apps on iPhones themselves). With some careful splicing and QLab cueing, we were able to match the prerecorded screen captures to characters' actions. (I initially programmed a long iPhone sequence as one video with a series of automatic pauses and manual Start cues, but we ran into trouble if the actor went faster than the video. Splicing the video into multiple files let us fire the next segment of iPhone video even if the current one was still running.)
The QLab programming got fairly complex, with many layers of videos and still images running simultaneously, and animation cues used for creative transitions. The Audition window was essential for sorting out all the complexities of programming, particularly layering, before getting into the rehearsal room. The Surfaces paradigm was also an enormous help, even though we only had one surface; when changing projectors, we just repatched the surface to the new display and didn't need to worry about elements shifting if the resolution was different (unlike in QLab 2).
With 686 lines of QLab programming (126 manual GOs) in 45 minutes, over the course of a two-month tour, QLab never let us down. During talkbacks, our audience members frequently commented on the design work, saying it helped them connect to the story and keep them engaged. Even a few years ago, the ability to put together such a tight design, and to take it on the road, would have been out of reach of a student company such as ours. In a time when audiences are used to the frantic pace and big-budget effects of TV and movies, QLab helped us produce a performance that plays to our audiences' fluency with media yet retains the magic of live theatre.
Directed by Joshua Langman.
Sarah Lawrence College Theatre Outreach.
Projection design by Joshua Langman and Sky Mihaylo.
Sound design by Saibi Khalsa.