“Talking” to each other online has changed our world. But in the world of theater, it can be a challenge to depict it on stage. That’s one of the reasons Fresno State theater professor Kathleen McKinley wanted to stage Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful.”
“This play, more than any other I have come across, explores how online communication has transformed how we connect with one another,” she says.
In pursuing the title, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama, McKinley continues Fresno State’s dedication to new, socially relevant plays.
We caught up with McKinley by email to talk about the production, which opens Friday, March 13.
Question: What is the play about?
Answer: In 2009, four diverse strangers have found laughter, safety and tough-love in an online addiction recovery chat room. The administrator of the chat-room is the estranged birth mother of an Iraq War veteran named Elliot Ortiz. A death occurs in the Ortiz family that sets into motion unexpected reunions, confrontations, confessions and discoveries.
What attracted you about this title?
The 2012 Pulitzer and the success of the Latina playwright, Quiara Alegria Hudes, caught my attention. I was intrigued by the funny, quirky, courageous characters dealing with contemporary issues of online communication, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction. Also, I was drawn to the universal themes of family — birth, adopted, real, virtual — and the power of forgiveness. Finally, I was excited to tackle the challenges of stage action unfolding in cyberworld.
In talking with the cast and students on campus, did you find that the Iraq War is fresh in their minds? Or does it feel like history for them?
The frightening state of the world right now keeps the Iraq War fresh in all our minds, but I think we as a nation are becoming more and more aware of the lingering effects of the trauma suffered by some Iraq War vets.
Addiction is a central theme of this play. How did you approach that theme?
Recently, it seems, the term “addiction” is used to define many types of behavior from ingesting illegal drugs to compulsively checking email. One denying character in this play labels crack addiction as a “psychological battle, not a physical war.” The play is about struggling against demons of all kinds, and learning that we do not have to struggle alone.
What are the theatrical challenges of depicting online chat room relationships?
In our production, there is no separation between the computer and the character — they are one! In fact, there are no real computers on stage, until one moment that I won’t give away! The actors in cyberworld must engage in nuanced relationships without touch, and without the reciprocal connection of eye contact for much of the cyber action. During early rehearsals, the actors explored relationships as they might in any play. Then we added the communication obstacles of the chat room. Strangely enough, these restrictions heighten the sensitivity of the actors — listening, awareness, the need to connect. The characters are drawn into each other’s world. In staging, real world boundaries disappear — your desk is my sofa!
Cyber time is flexible, so actor timing is fluid. When no “friend” is logged-on, the audience is the cyber community. Finally, at transformative moments of passion or communion, the online relationships morph into physical relationships that will appear very intimate, immediate and real world.
Talk about the look and feel of the show.
The production has three worlds: the real world, cyberworld, and a world of Magical Realism.
The designers (Jeff Hunter, Elizabeth Payne, Liz Waldman, Yojaira Lemus) and I found that the three worlds are at times isolated, and at other moments overlap as characters physically slide into, stumble upon and invade these spaces. The real world spans the globe, and locations will be established through costumes, projections, video, sound, lighting and minimal, specific, set pieces that symbolize the status of each character: a plastic chair, a desk, a milk crate.
The look is also influenced by water imagery with all its connotations of cleansing and redemption. The techno sounds of contemporary life are an additional, sometimes nagging, character in the play, and Video/Sound Designer Liz Waldman has created a range of electronic rings, beeps, and dings that interrupt, distract, and sometimes reassure the characters. The organic jazz of John Coltrane, both smooth and dissonant, counterbalances the electronic noise.