“Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring, and a Journalism Revolution,” an immersive, multi-media play based on the events of the Arab Spring, will make its full stage debut April 8-10 and April 14-16 at Eastern Mennonite University’s Mainstage Theater in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The production is based on the book of the same name by Andrew Carvin, a Washington D.C.-based journalist who covered the seismic political and cultural shifts in the Middle East via social media as they were unfolding from 2010 to 2012.
Carvin participates in process
The Carvin connection came through former EMU professor Paulette Moore, who met him at a conference and invited him to Skype in the fall of 2014 with EMU students in her social media class. Justin Poole, assistant professor of theater, was intrigued by the connection with Carvin.
Poole had worked with an Arab cultural organization in Philadelphia earlier in his career and had traveled to Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring took off. He’d thought for several years that those events would make for powerful theater.
EMU theater and social media classes, led by Poole and Paulette Moore, initially adapted the book for the stage in the fall of 2014. To this process, Poole brings years of academic and professional experience: One of his specialities is devised theater and ensemble play development.
“I would come in with an outline, we would improvise some pieces, I would go back and write, and it just started to evolve,” Poole says. “We took recordings Andy Carvin did and blog posts outside his book and combined them to make the actual performance. The students have been a huge part in helping to shape what this piece has become from the beginning until now.”
A workshop performance of the play, with student actors reading from scripts, took place on campus in May 2015 with support from the Arts Council of the Valley and EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Carvin was on hand to provide comments and suggestions. Poole made adjustments after that, including some changes in the script and the addition of a second video camera on stage.
The resultant play is framed via a reporter who is interviewing Carvin, while a Greek chorus-style group speaks the Tweets from Carvin’s reporting and video images flash on three screens and even on the floor. Actors often speak directly to the cameras and sometimes go through the audience. A live score by Jim Clemens, which whom Poole has collaborated on a number of projects, helps to balance the intensity with more reflective moments.
VACA professor Jerry Holsopple’s motion graphics class created the cyperspace visualizations that play on two screens.
“This adds to the complexity of the show, as we experience the constant flowing information, much of which we don’t understand,” Holsopple says. “This confluence of information, confusion and intensity should keep the viewer on edge. The third screen will be a live camera from the stage itself, so in a way everything is mediated with screens.”
“It’s a very immersive theatrical piece,” Poole adds. “The audience should feel very much in the midst of it as Andy Carvin was as he was following all these events. All the people who appear in the play are real people, and 90 percent of the dialogue is from tweets, blog posts, and other sources. It’s kind of a big, epic piece.”
The play runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, and a 15-minute talkback session follows each performance. The show includes some profanity and violent imagery due to its real-life content.
All performances are at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, April 10, which will be a 3 p.m. matinee. Tickets are available at the EMU Box Office or by calling 540-432-4582.
Cast and Crew
Director and Adaptor: Justin Poole
Video Design: Jerry Holsopple
Music Composition: Jim Clemens
Scene Design: Phillip Grayson
Costume Design: Holly Labbe
Lighting Design: David B. Vogel
Sound Design: Ethan Eldred
Stage Manager: Ezrionna Prioleau
Assistant Director: Rachelle Kratz
Makayla Baker: Reporter
Clara Bush: @angryarabiya
Bryce Hagan: Mo
Jeremiah Hines: Tom MacMaster
Caitlin Randazzo: Perditta
Rose Sanicola: Asmaa
Celeb Townsend: Andy Carvin
Rachel Cardwell, Macson MacGuigan, Kara Painter, Damon Pyles: Camera Operators
Kaylin Richardson: Video Switcher
Assistant Stage Managers: Hailey Holcomb, Kara Painter, Katie Taylor
Technical Director: David B. Vogel
Dramaturge: Derrick Turner
Assistant Costume Designers: Grace Eldred, Belen Yoder, Cela Hoefle
Cyberspace Creative Team: Jacob Brown, Jonathan Bush, Rachel Cardwell, Claire Fry, Madeline Martinez, Kaylin Richardson, Caleb Townsend
Master Electrician: Jonathan Nofziger
Lighting Crew: Jeremiah Hines, Elisha Keener, Yesly Lim, Caitlin Randazzo, Rose Sanicola, Isaac Tice, Rein Wenger
Light Board Operator: Luis Longo, Angel Mallard
Live Sound Mixer: Josh Miller, Evan Knappenberger
Sound Board Operator: Ethan Eldred
Construction Supervisor: Shannon Dove
Construction and Technical Crew: Jeremiah Hines, Hailey Holcomb, Elisha Keener, Yesly Lim, Kara Painter, Ezrionna Prioleau, Caitlin Randazzo
Public Relations Coordinator: Ezrionna Prioleau
Cast Photographs: Kara Painter
House Manager: Christian Parks