Theater was deemed nonessential in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic: The packed, maskless crowds it attracted indoors was counterproductive to slowing the spread of the virus. But while conventional theater-going might be momentarily waiting in the wings, a new theatrical adventure is available offstage.
The Cherry Arts and Wharton Studio Museum have collaborated with the History Center in Tompkins County to create “Walk This Play” — two downloadable headphone walking plays about Ithaca’s history, accessible without advance tickets. According to Samuel Buggeln, artistic director of The Cherry Arts and director of both plays, audiences can access the play on their phones after donating a minimum of $5 and listen to fictional stories inspired by Ithaca’s past while strolling through Ithaca today.
The two walking plays—“Storm Country,” written by Nick Salvato and Aoise Stratford, and “The Missing Chapter,” written by Aoise Stratford and Katie Marks—were first produced by The Cherry in 2016. Both one hour long, the plays are not intended to be experienced in one place, Buggeln said, but they can be listened to by oneself or with others. Audiences are instead meant to walk approximately one mile in a specific location while listening to the play’s dialogue and musical accompaniments.
“The Missing Chapter,” for example, takes place in Stewart Park while surveying Ithaca’s film history and the Beatrice Fairfax mystery films, directed in Ithaca in 1916 by the Wharton brothers of the Wharton Studio Museum. “Storm Country,” on the other hand, is based on Ithaca author Grace Miller White’s “Tess of The Storm Country” and walks listeners though Ithaca’s West End.
Diana Reisman, director of Wharton Studio Museum, said the walking plays are perfect for audiences looking for a socially distanced theater experience during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You can do it with family members,” she said. “You can socially distance. You can wear a mask. So it's perfect.”
Marks said she and Stratford were inspired by the Fairfax series’ focus on a strong female main character in “The Missing Chapter.” Fairfax, based on a real woman of the same name, was a love advice columnist turned sleuth. Marks also said they became enticed by a motif of missing things—a tower that once stood in Stewart Park and lost films from the past, including the first chapter of the Fairfax serial.
“We wanted to reimagine that missing episode and offer some of the history of the [Wharton] studio and the park that we discovered in our research,” Marks said via email. “We also wanted it to speak back to the contemporary time. Just over 100 years ago, when the film was coming out, women were fighting for the right to vote and that moment felt like it had real resonance with where we are now.”
Marks, Buggeln and Reisman will be participating in a panel discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 23 from Buffalo Street Books (and broadcast online) to talk about the two plays.
Timing the audio plays to align with the audience’s walking journey must be exact to create the intended effect and correct storyline—unlike a physical play, in which the audience relies on visual cues for the story to progress, Buggeln said.
“I think my directing style for theater, as anyone who knows [how] the Cherry's stage works, is quite visual, so it was an interesting challenge,” he said. “My work was more like a dramaturg classically than like a director. The directing came in the moment of recording the acting and in the edit afterwards.”
Before the plays were available online, tickets for the walking plays were sold through a makeshift box office at the play’s respective starting outdoor locations. Buggeln said that despite the perfectly timed moment to release an accessible, social distance activity for theater lovers during a pandemic, plans allowing audiences to listen to the plays through a donation were already in the works.
“These are stories about our community written by people in our community,” Buggeln said. “That was very intriguing to us—the idea, in both cases, that when we're walking down the street in our town, we don't know that we're walking through history […] streets that have been walked down by so many other people with so many other kinds of businesses and buildings surrounding us.”