In Hidden Room Theatre's experimental production, Ryan wants you to meet Elizabeth via Skype
The Facebook comment is as breezy as any other.
"How wonderful! I wish I could have been there to see it," writes Elizabeth Watson in response to a posting about a symphony performance in Austin. Watson couldn't have seen the performance, you see, because she lives in London.
That is the actress Rachel Watkinson, who plays the character of Elizabeth Watson, who lives in London.
Watkinson along with Austin actor Judd Farris is performing in You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas/You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London," a theatrical experiment in live and virtual performance co-produced by Austin's Hidden Room Theatre and London's Roundhouse Theatre.
Farris and Watkinson play a couple involved in a long-distance relationship, one conducted mostly via Skype, the internet-based phone service with video chat capabilities.
During the one-hour performances that begin this weekend, the couple will be engaged in a live online conversation but will include the audiences in Austin and London as if the play-goers were casual friends of the couple chiming in on the internet chatter.
To add to the boundary-blurring of theater and real life, the performances will be limited to just 20 audience members here and in London, and the Austin presentation will take place in a private home. And a few weeks ago, Facebook profiles for "Elizabeth Watson" and "Ryan Peterson," Farris' character, appeared, complete with fully fleshed art bios (Peterson is a school teacher, Watson lists her birthday as April 4, 1982). Friend either one and you'll start to receive messages and comments on your Facebook posts.
Beth Burns, artistic director of Hidden Room Theatre, crafted the basics of the script, though the actors are free to improvise. Burns said she came upon the idea of using Skype, and the Internet in general, as way to theatrically explore the very complex nature of relationships in today's immediate but distant virtual world of social media.
"What makes a relationship real these days?" Burns says. "Now you can have a relationship if you never even met in person."
And yet, technology changes basic conventions of conversation. "We have a tendency in this country to talk over each other," Burns says. "But on Skype, you can't do that. To be understood you have to say your piece, then be quiet in order to hear a response. You're really forced to listen to the other person."
Burns struck up a friendship with the Roundhouse folks on a visit last summer. And last month Burns and Farris spent a week in London rehearsing in person with Watkinson.
Given the limited live audience — and to add to the layered live vs. virtual concept — the four performances will be streamed live. And everyone can participate in the live chatter via Twitter using the hash tag, #TexasLondon.
Burns, her co-producers and actors will download, so to speak, their experience during a March 12 panel that's part of the South by Southwest Interactive Conference.
"Maybe a long-distance relationship can work these days," says Burns. "We still have to trust our instincts, use our judgment as we get to know others. But who knows? I guess we'll find out with this show."
'You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas/You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London'
When: 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 13
Where: Private residence; address given upon ticket reservation
Livestreaming: The performances will be livestreamed at www.roundhouse.org.uk . 2 p.m. Austin time; 8 p.m. London time