In Elephant Room: Dust from the Stars, an eclectic triad of magicians turned astro-nots take you on a virtual trip through time and space. You’ll arrive in the distant year 2020 against a dystopian backdrop of near total planetary collapse—a mysterious plague ravages the earth, temperatures are heating up, chaos rules the streets, democracy hangs by a thread as autocratic regimes seek to divide and conquer the planet’s empires. But before their journey floating around in a virtual spaceship somewhere in the universe, the story of the Elephant Room began in Los Angeles at Center Theatre Group.
In 2005, Geoff Sobelle (who plays Dennis Diamond) and Trey Lyford (who plays Daryl Hannah) performed all wear bowlers at the Here Arts Center, where they met Kelley Kirkpatrick, an Associate Artistic Director at Center Theatre Group. Kirkpatrick helped bring all wear bowlers to the Kirk Douglas Theatre that same year, which also happened to be the year Michael Ritchie began his tenure as Artistic Director. Thus began a nearly two-decade long artistic partnership with Center Theatre Group.
Seven years later, and after a whole lot of clownery, Center Theatre Group’s commission of Elephant Room played the Douglas, recruiting illusionist Steve Cuiffo (who plays Louie Magic) and completing the trio of magic-loving schlubs attempting to expand the membership of their secret magic society headquartered in a basement somewhere in New Jersey—that is, the self-acclaimed Elephant Room. And now in 2020, The New York Times recommended sequel, Elephant Room: Dust from the Stars, provides a glimpse into what happens when “(self-proclaimed) celebrities” disappear into the ether and emerge as space explorers and time travellers—and it’s all happening over Zoom.
Unlike many other virtual theatre plays and readings, Zoom is not something the artists fell back on to present work when live shows were no longer a possibility. Instead, Sobelle, Lyford, and Cuiffo are utilizing all of the special features of the app to create a live show specifically made for the platform, which means that they are the ones who will run the technical aspects while acting and doing magic tricks, sometimes at the same time. For the trio, it was important to integrate the conferencing, messaging and backdrop features to create a fully immersive and interactive Zoom experience unlike any other—and of course, what is Zoom without audience participation? The combination of their experimental theatre performances and the current virtual era of theatre speaks to both the present and future of theatre and performance.
Despite the distancing that has had to take place, Lyford was surprised by how much the community has survived. “Although the ‘live-ness’ of theatre cannot be duplicated, this time has proven that community can be built if you’re creative enough,” said Lyford. “The digital theatre world has opened up access to those who may have been bound by geography, cost, etc., and allowed the community to be more interconnected than ever.” For Center Theatre Group, we have had the opportunity to work with theatres, artists, and students from around the nation through our Digital Stage and Education and Community Partnerships programming. For Sobelle, Lyford, and Cuiffo, it’s given them the opportunity to transform what was once slated to be an in-person show into an innovative digital experience.
In fact, as Cuiffo put it, this moment is just “the tip of the iceberg of what we now call theatre and how we will interact as a species in the coming years.” As technology continues to expand and evolve, and software and new platforms to present theatrical work get developed, it is hard to predict what the future of theatre will look like. Sobelle wonders whether, if and when we come back to physical space, people will hold on to this as a form or whether it will even stay at all. At Center Theatre Group, we have a group of artists that are working together to directly inform this near future of artistic storytelling.
When not assuming the characters of Dennis Diamond, Daryl Hannah, and Louie Magic, Sobelle, Lyford, and Cuiffo work with some of the most prolific theatre artists as part of CTG’s Creative Collective, a group of artists helping Center Theatre Group “create experiences for our Digital Stage today, devise ways to bring audiences together outdoors or in other safe ways during this time of social distancing and to dream differently about the world we want to see when we can all return to our theatres.” Lyford said that “it has been inspiring and humbling to be brought into this room of established theatre workers to see what theatre can become and where it will go.”
Elephant Room: Dust from the Stars, directed by Paul Lazar, is presented live on Zoom as part of Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage programming December 16–20, 2020.