Ferry Play: Smartphone Play for the Staten Island Ferry
By Erin B. Mee
Smartphone plays are an emerging genre of theatre that take advantage of mobile technology to create site-specific audio-based theatrical experiences. I have just directed one for the Staten Island Ferry in New York City, called Ferry Play. In this case, you download an app to your smartphone (the app contains the audio clips, instructions, and the program), and ride the ferry. Act 1 goes from Manhattan to Staten Island, and Act 2 goes from Staten Island to Manhattan.
The impetus for the project was my interest in podplays: I was fascinated by the relationship between a recording that never changes and a site that is constantly changing. For example, at the beginning of Ferry Play, a teenager says to her family, “look at that creepy guy over there.” Every time an audience member actually looks, there will be someone different to see: if the audience member sees someone they perceive as creepy, then they share the same perception; if there is a guy who doesn’t seem creepy to the listener, then the listener might decide the teen is judgmental; if there is no one at all, we begin to wonder if she is imagining things, or if this is a game she plays with her family. So the audience member actually “writes the play” by combining what they hear with what they actually see, touch, and smell in the live environment – and because what they see, touch, and hear is always different, the play will be different for every audience member every time they hear it.
I was also interested in the intimacy of someone speaking in your ear juxtaposed with the vastness of the New York Harbor. In Act 1, April speaks very quietly and intimately into our ears: “I was watching you. I liked the way you were observing things. It’s so nice to see someone by themselves on this thing. So many people but no one to talk to. Because everyone is in groups. Or looking at things. Their laps. Their phones. Anything but each other. Most people don’t observe anymore.They look at things. But they look at them through little screens. Or they don’t look at all. They like to capture things on screens. Take pictures. I guess to prove you were somewhere. You really, really were somewhere. I just find - the more images we capture, the less we actually see. Maybe.” She says this while we are looking out over the water, while the Statue of Liberty falls behind the boat, while we absorb a huge vista.
Jessie Bear (the playwright) and I were both interested in the characters that ride the ferry every day - and the plays you can overhear by listening to other people's conversations. This exchange between two drunk men is based on a conversation Jessie and I overheard the first time we rode the ferry together:
MAN 1: We gotta stop drinking.
MAN 2: The fuck?
MAN 1: It’s fucking killing me. I think it’s killing me. 9/11 changed shit, man.
MAN 2: Oh don’t start that fuckin -
MAN 1: You wasn’t there. I’m so sick of this shit, man. I gotta stop drinking.
[He pops a beer and drinks]
MAN 2: You didn’t stop.
MAN 1: Hm?
MAN 2: You say you wanna stop you stop.
MAN 1: What?
MAN 2: Put down your beer.
MAN 1: Aw, come on –
MAN 2: Put it down. Right now.
MAN 1: I didn’t –
MAN 2: You wanna do it, do it.
Ferry Play asks you to observe the people on the ferry, and encourages you to see them as characters in the play.
Counterintuitively, smartphone plays - known, when people still had ipods as podplays - use technology to invite you to ignore your technology and engage with the world around you. The character April invites us to “look around at all the people. They all have secrets. Right now, on this boat, someone is thinking about death. Who is it?” In Act 2, Paul encourages us to be in the moment:
“You are here. Feel it. Feel it on the top of your head and below your toes. Feel the wind glide around your ears, under your nails, around your waist. You. Are. Here. Smell it. Who’s around you, what they’re eating, the perfume they wore this morning. The sea. See it. The horizon. The sky. Be outside with me now. Come on. Right to the edge with me - doesn’t matter where specifically, just at the railing, teetering on the brink between the boat and the enormous, empty water. Lean against the railing. Feel that? The wind? The sun? You’re inside something now. Something enormous. So just relax and breathe it in. You’re one person - one person - on this boat as it moves 5.2 miles from one island to another, inches ever-so-fractionally across the globe. You are here.”
New York Theatre Review’s Michael Niederman wrote that the “revelatory thing about Ferry Play” is that it “encourages the listener to see a familiar part of the world in a whole new way,” so that “the city of New York becomes a different animal”
Because the ferry runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, audiences can experience the play any time they want: on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon, at 3am, or during rush hour. Audiences have the freedom to engage whenever they please - they don't have to plan ahead or show up on time. They can do half the play one day and do the other half a month later - or, as Niederman did, do Act 1, have dinner on Staten Island, and do Act 2 after dessert. They don't have to wear anything special. They can do it by themselves or with a group of friends. And it only costs $1.99 - the price of the app (the ferry is free). Audiences who can't afford Broadway (or theatre at other venues) can afford this.
Because of this, we happen to have attracted a very diverse audience for Ferry Play. When I was handing out flyers at Whitehall Terminal, I tried to anticipate who might be interested, but I was always wrong. People with green hair and white hair were interested; a five year old with pink barrettes and a gentleman in his 80s; people carrying guitars, people carrying briefcases, people dressed in hospital scrubs, people pushing strollers; people of all ages, races, incomes, and dress styles. Some were actors themselves; others were people who have never been to the theatre before. One young man offered to write a sequel; another woman told me she didn't own a smartphone but would listen to it on her computer. The only "demographic" that wasn't interested was the "I'm-late-and-I'm-afraid-I'm-going-to-miss-the-ferry" demographic. Otherwise, it was impossible to make any kind of generalization. Most ferry riders were hungry for a theatrical experience (except the guy who thought it was for tourists, and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that he was not a tourist).
Smartphone plays are an interesting new genre of theatre that invite audiences to co-create the event, and give them more control over the when, where, and what of the production.