Builders Association creates a continuous city

Continuous City
"Continuous City" uses technology to explore the impact of global telecommunication on individual human relationships.
Image Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

In a darkened theater at the Walker Art Center the air is filled with the unsettling crunch and screech of digital communication. Suddenly a raft of screens snap open and a large friendly face appears.

"Hello? Anybody home?" he calls.

Cast on stage
In "Continuous City" only a few actors appear in person on stage. Here we can see J.V. and Sam as Mike looks down from somewere else in the world.
Image courtesy Walker Art Center

This is Mike, calling from far away on a videophone, looking for his daughter Sam.

"Hey Sam, it's me. I'm in Guadalajara, which is in Mexico."

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A young girl appears at the front of the stage and sits at a computer with a video camera. Her face appears on another screen to the side of the stage and they talk.

"Hey, why don't we get some lunch?" Mike says.

As Mike talks he turns the phone on the street around him and he talks to his daughter about what they might buy to eat. It turns out Mike is on a protracted business trip. This is how he tries to maintain his relationship with Sam. When she shuts off her computer, he disappears.

In the play, J.V. sits in his office and talks to people areound the world. Their images are projected on screens around him.
Image courtesy of Walker Art Center

As the show continues screens around the stage blaze into life, and introduce us to Mike and Sam's friends around the world. We meet his business partner J.V. in his office somewhere, and also the Nanny looking after Sam. She is desperately trying find ways to connect with the little girl.

"These sort of portraits of how we are tethered to each other in these relationships and networks is what is spelled out in the show," says Marianne Weems.

Weems is Artistic Director of the Builders Association. The critically acclaimed experimental theater company has made a reputation exploring the ever accelerating pace of 21st century life.

The stage for Continuous City with its cameras, speakers, and multiple screens, represents the global network, aiding and sometimes impeding communication.

Weems and Gibbs
Marianne Weems and James Gibbs, two of the collaborators on the Builders Associations "Continuous City"
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Weems says the use of technology has meaning in itself.

"This is definitely about using the tools to talk about the tools," she says. "And so this is very deep investigation of what that technology means."

In the story, Sam the little girl appears happy with her virtual relationship with her Dad, perhaps because she knows little else.

Other relationships are twisted by technology too. At one point J.V. is propositioned simultaneously by two women on their video phones. He switches between them trying to find a polite, then not-so-polite way of getting rid of them both.

"This is definitely about using the tools to talk about the tools. And so this is very deep investigation of what that technology means."

As the production tours the Builders Association works to make local connections.

The cast member playing the Nanny arrives several days before the show and collects material for her video blog which becomes part of the production.

In Minnesota that has meant visits to a hockey game, the Spam museum, a couple of Mexican grocery stores and a coffee shop popular with local Somalis.

According to James Gibbs the dramaturge for the "Continuous City," seeing familiar things helps draw an audience into the story.

"And as the characters connect using these technologies out into the broader world," he says, "the audience can perceive the show as a conduit to bring them from the theater and the town they are in out into the world and the characters moving around in the world, some of which is fictional and some of which is live."

During the show actor Rizwan Mirza, who plays J.V., speaks live to his relatives around the world. Another mixture of fact and fiction is a website for Xubu, a business portrayed in the show. Anyone can leave a short video monologues which may end up in the production.

Continuous City is relatively new, the Walker presentation is only it's second staging. Walter Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither says the Builders Associations work is always provocative.

Curator Philip Bither
Philip Bither is performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center. He says "Ocean" is the largest, most expensive and possibly most artistically audacious performance the Walker has ever attempted.
Photo courtesty of the Walker Art Center

"I think they are really digging deep into the question of, is it the same kind relationship you can have when your physical bodies are half way around the globe?" he says.

Bither say the work is timely.

"It is also beautiful and thrilling to see what they do visually through technology on stage," Bither says. "It's really not like any theater work that most of us get to see."

The Builders Association will do three shows at the Walker, and then really take the show on the road. "Continuous City will be performed around the world for the next two years.