by Camilla Mikolajewska
chekhovOS /an experimental game/
Concept art for chekhovOS
courtesy of Igor Golyak
On Sunday, June 20th and Thursday June 24th, Artistic Director Igor Golyak will premiere chekhovOS /an experimental game/, an interactive online theatre experience. Better yet, it’s a performance that thousands of people can enjoy together from all around the world. Golyak has been a leading innovator of virtual theatre since the start of the pandemic, with his recent production State Vs. Natasha Banina being a Critic’s Pick in The New York Times. chekhovOS /an experimental game/ combines film, theatre, and video game technology together to create a new medium where viewers are able to interact with the performers. We had the opportunity to sit with Golyak to discuss his creative process, working alongside Mikhail Bayshnikov, and the impact virtual theatre has on society today.
Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Chekhov’s letters, chekhovOS accesses the operating system behind Chekhov’s computer and the world in which his characters live in search of happiness. The project was developed in the new and emerging genre of virtual theatre at Arlekin’s Zero Gravity Lab, by an elite group of collaborators, fostered by Golyak himself. The start of this production began when it gained some interest from the Baryshnikov Art Centre. Reflecting on this moment, Golyak recalls that, “we had the pleasure of having Mikhail Baryshnikov at three or four of our shows after which he invited us to present The State vs Natasha at his art centre. That’s where our relationship started.
The same with Jessica Hecht, who attended a few of our performances, after which we started speaking and thinking about what we can do together.” From there, Golyak and Hecht got together with a few of their close friends and colleagues for a two-day rehearsal via Zoom, followed by a one-day reading and exploration of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. This was when they realized that Chekhov was extremely fitting to the current psychological and physical state we’re all currently experiencing.
“It is a sense of loss,” Golyak continues, “the fragility of human life, a sense of life having almost no logic and being taken away from the characters in the play, just like life was being taken from Chekhov while he was writing this play dying from tuberculosis. All of these things are embedded in the play, and although not directly spoken of, it’s what is not being said that is at the forefront of Chekhov’s poetics.” As a result of that reading, they decided it would be interesting to keep exploring these poetics through this digital lens. “We started filming some scenes from the Cherry Orchard and I thought it would be a good idea to share it virtually to many people who may find themselves struggling through the pandemic, and for people to relate to some of these characters from 120 years ago.”
The filming process took about a week, including three days of rehearsal and three days of filming. As an end result, the production will include some live elements and some pre-recorded elements. Golyak then had the idea of incorporating Chekhov into the production itself, so he contacted Baryshnikov to ask him for some advice and discuss this project. Baryshnikov jumped on the idea and said he wanted to play the role of Anton Chekhov himself. The remainder of the cast is composed of a wide variety of well known stage and film actors including Jessica Hecht, Mark Nelson, Anna Baryshnikov, Melanie Moore, Nael Nacer, Jeffrey Hayenga, Darya Denisova and Anna Bortnick.
A question that arose was what some of the challenges may be for these actors when the audience is absent from the same space? Surely it would be a different experience than performing on stage for a live audience. However, Golyak explains that all of these actors have a lot of experience in film, where you don’t usually have an audience present. He mentions in fact that sometimes the audience helps a production but other times they hurt the production. “We treated this production as a film, and one of the challenges was that they had to trust me completely. I had no idea what
was going to happen, I had some drawings of what the space would look like, but they just had to trust me that it was all going to come together in the end. We didn’t do the whole play, only particular scenes, we didn’t have costumes, it was kind of a proof of concept and see what happens with it. Although I had an initial concept page that I later designed, that ended up changing." Golyak explains that the most difficult thing with these actors was that only two of them had seen his productions before, one being The State Vs. Natasha, which was a virtual production. “They just had to be ok with not knowing how anything was going to turn out while working with a director that doesn’t have any film experience. This production is a mixture of film, game, and theatre; so in that sense no one has any experience with mixing these three elements and no one knows how to do it right. I think we got some things right, while others we can keep developing.”
Being a virtual production makes chekhovOS a very site specific theatre. According to Golyak, any theatre is always site specific. “Every theatre space has its own energy and pathway of affecting the audience and it’s up to the director to figure out what the best uses of each space are. Virtual theatre is a type of site specific theatre, so there are many advantages of using Zoom as our platform.” Golyak states that the fact that everyone is in the front row is an advantage. “We have a chat function, that you don’t normally have in a theatre, we have backgrounds and I can rearrange the gallery view. We are together from different places, experiencing something together.” In trying to figure out what makes it unique, Golyak raises the question of just how one makes it work. In order to make it work some sort of agency of the audience is needed.
An example of this would be considering how virtual theatre is different from Netflix. “Netflix will always be better as it doesn’t have to be live. However, what is the advantage of it being live? The audience needs to have a role, when you’re asked to see something, it’s one thing, if you’re asked to participate, it’s different. While watching this performance, the audience is going to be catching on to points, they’ll be interacting differently, it will be an experience versus being an observation.” So how exactly will the audience be interacting? The audience makes a choice on the order of scenes and they interact directly with a live actor on stage by having their Zoom windows inserted into the virtual space. For example, your face appears in the back of the screen and the actor will ask you questions directly. The audience then makes a choice on how the play continues by deciding on whether we as human kind have changed since Chekhov's time and whether we should. The votes are put inside the game and theatre patrons will be able to use their phones as a remote control.
A common misconception with theatre is that it is for a bourgeois crowd, which many of the times it is. Here, however, you are receiving that high level theatre experience for a much cheaper cost. With that, it also opens an entire new market of accessibility. “You don’t need to go to Broadway or spend lots of money, with virtual theatre tickets can be much cheaper, the market is bigger and more people can now enjoy the arts, it’s a lot more accessible. I can get audience members from all different walks of life to have a shared human experience and make connections.”
While you may think that your chances of having culturally inspiring evenings are a thing of the past, chekhovOS presents an opportunity to order from your favourite restaurant, put on a nice outfit and tune in for a unique performance. Igor Golyak’s chekhovos /an experimental game/ is the start of a new genre that will continue to thrive and excel well beyond the pandemic.