‘Please ensure mobile devices are switched on before the commencement of the performance’ is not something you expect to hear as a theater patron. But that’s exactly what audiences at Fredericton’s Theatre New Brunswick were asked to do for Returning Fire, a play looking at the struggles faced by a former soldier trying to reintegrate into society.
Penned by local playwright Ryan Griffith, Returning Fire tells the story of a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces returning home from the war in Afghanistan. While trying to reconnect with a friend from his youth, the soldier is haunted by the ghosts of war and the spectre of PTSD, all too common among veterans.
The play - set in Fredericton - recently completed a short run at the New Brunswick. It’s themes of lost innocence and battle scarred psyches have been explored by plenty of dramatists before, but the production takes a thrilling new approach to the theatrical experience, harnessing mobile technology to engage audiences in a way that pushes conventional boundaries. Indeed, Returning Fire not only dispenses with theater conventions - it largely dispenses with the theater altogether.
The majority of the story is told through text messages. Ticket holders become audience members at 4pm, when the first text comes through. For the next four hours, the play unfolds as dialogue between the two principal characters, culminating in the revelation of a secret location in Fredericton where the physical denouement will take place. The anticipation builds as audience members converge at the location to witness the live reunion of the characters.
The playwright relished the challenge of creating an entirely new kind of theater using the lexicon of SMS. “It was a lot of fun to recreate that kind of dialogue,” he told the Aquinian. “For me, it was as fun to write as a normal play.”
A Griffith suggests, the appeal of the concept goes beyond a gimmicky use of technology. It’s about the effect that text messaging has had on the way we communicate: the abbreviations, the misunderstandings about intent and tone - even the agony of silence, which takes on a different dimension when the characters aren’t sharing the same physical space.
Artistic Director Thomas Morgan Jones says Griffith’s work is “able to boldly challenge notions of what live theatre is… by exploring the use of technology in theatre.”
That exploration was facilitated by Ez Texting, who provided the platform through which the drama unfolds. Morgan Jones says the production would not have been possible without us:
“The idea behind the play was to have two characters text messaging each other three and a half hours before the live play would start. The audience would then receive these text messages on their own phones. During the texts, they would discover where these characters planned to meet in the city of Fredericton, and could then travel to that location to watch the play. When we came up with the idea, we had no idea how we would do it. Thankfully, we found EZTexting.”
As other theaters consider producing Returning Fire, Morgan Jones hopes the unlikely alliance between mobile technology and drama will continue to develop, with Ez Texting’s SMS service his “first recommendation for bringing the play to life” in future productions.
The future of theatrical drama lies with those dramatists willing to break with convention. Although this is the first time text messaging has been used to stage a play, the innovation is part of a wider trend towards a radical reinterpretation of theatre as we know it.
Returning Fire is a story about the isolation of PTSD and the difficulty of making human connections in an increasingly atomized world. It’s creator has not only recognized the role played by online communication in fueling and normalizing that atomization, but brought it to life as a distinct and vital character.