Virtual Magic – A New Vision for Theater Online in Long Distance Affair

(Photo – June Raven Romero looks into your virtual soul in the Miami performance of Long Distance Affair.)

Theater, at its core, is about human connection – something we’re all longing for in this time of Covid-19 driven isolation. In Long Distance Affair, a Zoom-powered, continent-hopping theater production which runs through Saturday May 30, PopUP Theatrics and Miami’s Juggerknot Theatre Co. present a captivatingly original way to use the now-ubiquitous online meeting platform to link one soul to another. This isn’t a virtual substitute for theater lovers. It’s a new kind of theatrical intimacy.

As the global lockdown has shut down live performances of theater, dance and music, artists and troupes have mostly responded by posting videos of past shows, or recording new ones in performers’ homes or outdoor spaces. But Long Distance Affair, instead of shrinking the live experience onto the small screen, creates a virtual platform that expands the possibilities of theater. When it works, Long Distance Affair has the giddily unnerving quality of something genuinely new.

I’ll try to explain the rather complicated set-up as simply as possible. The show takes place nightly from 7 to 9pm EST, with solo actors performing ten minute scripts live in New York, Miami, Paris, London, Madrid, and Singapore. The scripts have interaction written in, which can be as simple as an exchange of names – or a punchy physical workout or metaphysical discussion.

Long Distance Affair - Madrid
Is it a miracle? Angel Peraba in the Madrid performance of Long Distance Affair

You buy a ticket for a Zoom performance with an actor, either one-on-one, or with a small group, for either one or three monologues. In a press preview, I was alone with the Madrid actor, but with several other people for the Miami, Paris and Singapore shows. Theatrically globe-trotting me!

(Since you can buy a ticket from any time zone, but the ‘show’ is scheduled on Eastern Standard Time, the Long Distance Affair website has a converter to help you figure out when to log on, in case you’re in California or anywhere besides the U.S. East Coast. Thus, the European and Singapore actors perform early the next morning. This can add another layer of delightful mind-fuckery to the experience. When my Madrid actor insisted that our meeting was miraculous, and I responded no, it was just technology, he pointed out that we were in different times and places – a mundane modern experience which suddenly seemed, in fact, magical.)

Each monologue has its own playwright, director and creative crew. PopUP Theatrics founder/directors Ana Margineanu and Tamilla Woodard created the project (in a different form) in 2011. This new version is co-produced by Miami’s Juggerknot Theatre, the group behind the popular Miami Motel Stories immersive performances, the latest of which, on North Beach, was shut down mid-run by the pandemic lockdown. (Margineanu and Woodard have each directed Motel Stories productions.)

I found two of the four Affairs I experienced much more powerful than the others. Their strength depended on both the traditional values of strong writing, acting, and directorial vision, but, just as crucially, the inventive way they used the qualities of Zoom to turn the experience into something new.

Long Distance Affair - Miami
Look closer. June Raven Romero in the Miami performance of Long Distance Affair

In the Miami piece, Julieta, written by Motel Stories playwright Juan C. Sanchez and directed by Woodard, the mesmerizing June Raven Romero (a two-time Motel Stories actor), brings her elaborately made up face – black starburst eyes, gorgeously sculpted red mouth – so close you think she’ll pop right through the screen. She’s a pitch-perfect (as written and performed) Miami Chonga, deadpan hilarious with a surreal edge, mixing a beauty tutorial with loopy philosophical musings. “Remember, the eyes are the windows of the soul,” she says, peering at us. “If you can dream it you can be it. That’s from the Buddha. Or Disney. I forget.” Strange and intimate, the screen becomes, indeed, a window to her soul.

Long Distance Affair - Madrid
Flying? The Madrid performance of Long Distance Affair.

The Madrid play, Jean Tay’s The Announcement, directed by Margineanu, makes a different eerily disorienting use of the medium. White-clad actor Angel Peraba, in a stripped down white room, was an angel who persuaded me to believe in miracles. In part through gentle metaphysical argument, whose metaphors crept up on me. And in part through the way he used his sinuous physicality to manipulate what I saw onscreen: he seemed to levitate, his feet pedaling softly in the air; his face hovered above, below, disappeared. I knew he was just moving his device. But I was so captivated by the magic of his performance and the language that it was as good as virtual reality. Except it was emotionally transporting as well.

Long Distance Affair - Paris
The Paris performance of Long Distance Affair.

For me the Paris play, with a young man in his apartment inveigled us to help him celebrate his younger brother’s birthday and rambled about family life under lockdown; and the Singapore performance, where a woman led us in a punchy anti-bullying exercise, were less compelling as concepts and in their writing.

But they still transported us, up close, through theater.

If you go: Long Distance Affair takes place 7 to 9pm EST through Saturday May 30. Tickets are $11 to $40 at longdistanceaffair.info 

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