It's been almost seven years since the Lexington Children's Theatre produced The Giver, Eric Coble's staged adaptation of the 1993 book by Lois Lowry about a boy who is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, a rare occupation in a society that has eliminated all pain and stress by embracing "Sameness" and suppressing memories, among other things.
LCT is reviving The Giver this weekend, but with a digital twist.
LCT artistic director Vivian Snipes, who also directs the show, says that she and her staff reflected deeply about how our own society has significantly changed since 2008, when the show was last produced.
"Technology has changed vastly in the last five or six years," says Snipes. "As we move further and further into this technological world, I have begun to notice a disconnect."
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For Snipes, the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets and our compulsion for checking them continually are jeopardizing our ability to authentically relate to one another.
"We are buried in our smartphones," says Snipes. "We go out together and some of the first things we do is look at our phones and then that phone stays out the whole time, so we no longer make the human connection."
When Snipes and her designers began imagining the world of The Giver, they batted around the idea of a futuristic world where ordinary gestures like eye contact had been lost, replaced by digital communication.
"As a design time were extrapolating out — what if, in the future, we don't make eye contact? What if we don't have personal contact at all and everything that I want to show you is here on my phone," says Snipes.
Taking the impersonalization of humanity to the extreme is aligned with the themes and questions Lowry already posits in The Giver: Is a society which meets everyone's basic needs for biological survival but removes emotion, individuality, ambition, heartbreak, dreams and hope really one that anyone wants to live in?
The show's central character Jonas doesn't think it should be, but only after enduring a painful awakening to all that has been lost during his training as a Receiver.
"Because Jonas is desperate for human contact, it makes a nice juxtaposition with him trying to get people to look at him and they're always glancing away and into their technology," says Snipes.
That is not to say that Snipes and her team are anti-technology. Quite the contrary.
The show is one of the most technologically sophisticated shows in the theater's long history.
Projection and sound designer Jerome Wills operates three state-of-the-art projectors recreating the memories of the community by displaying images on multiple screens, including one prominent screen that is shaped like a bar code. Advanced lighting and sound design accompanies the complex projections, which are timed to re-create Jonas' and others' memories.
Wills uses the software program Isadora, which allows him to blend still and moving images with sophisticated visual effects to enhance the authenticity of the memory experience.
Back in 2008, multimedia programs were not nearly as sophisticated.
"Last time it was more of a Powerpoint-style projection," Snipes says of the previous production's technology. "We used mostly still images and dissolves."
Today, the multimedia possibilities are endless.
"You can do as much or as little as you want," says Wills, who poured through the script and sat in on rehearsals to learn what images and video clips were needed to create the play's lost memories.
"The main thing I watched in rehearsals was what the actors were doing with rhythm," says Wills, who has to edit each of the 140 or so projection cues to fit precisely with the performers' timing.
"I'm trying to find a happy medium, where each memory is not too short or long, but can breathe and live in the moment," says Wills.
Snipes has her actors give each other one compliment every day about their work on stage, and each actor is supposed to pay it forward by saying something nice to another cast member. This is one of many small ways she ensures the "human connection" stays strong in her workplace.
As to society's technological quandary at large, she says she doesn't have the answers but hopes that productions like The Giver offer audiences a chance to reflect on their humanity and whether technology is enhancing or diminishing that.
"Hopefully somebody will say, 'maybe I should put my phone down every once in a while or disconnect from my computer," she says.