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The Stage Meets Cyberspace

The next step in theater’s evolution comes to Richmond as The Mutation Project.


While other artistic arenas — like film and the visual arts — have embraced the Internet, theater doesn’t seem to know what to do with this revolutionary medium. Maybe the contrast is just too stark: Theater is tangible and grounded in time, whereas cyberspace tends to be ephemeral and timeless. Theater might have been the first method of mass communication, but nowadays it often seems like a stodgy, older cousin to the Internet, instead of its predecessor.

Cieslak is venturing to change that. The Internet is a pervasive presence in the development of the Mutation performances. Since the project began in the summer of 2002, producers and performers have used the Mutation Web site to keep in touch and get to know each other better. Random people outside of the project post articles describing their experiences and perspectives, providing anecdotes and context that will be incorporated into the final piece. Though text-based, the site also includes pictures and video clips from around the world. Surfing through the “Mutation workspace” is like wandering around backstage during rehearsals, except that you can also read the script, critique what’s going on, or even volunteer ideas for a scene.

Though he is pioneering this new integration, Cieslak insists that he is not technology-obsessed. Tall and lanky, the director exudes a boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm. “Even though we use the latest technology to help create this show, you won’t see computer monitors on stage or anything,” Cieslak says. In fact, as it plays out onstage, he says, “This show is actually very simple: just actors and space and a few props.”

When it is complete, “Out of Area” will be a distillation of weeks of improvisational work involving three local performers and two German actors. Using bits of articles from the Web site, Cieslak has his cast create improvisations. He picks out elements to use, discards others and expands on good ideas. Bridget Gethins, one of the local actors involved, says the resulting show is “like listening to a transistor radio. The scene and the voice change as you move down the dial. [The result] is very funny — there’s a lot of comedy.”

Cieslak says that the incorporation of the Internet into this project goes hand-in-hand with its principal subject, which is globalization and its effects on individuals. “With globalization, economic borders have tended to become weaker, but cultural borders have become stronger,” he says. Cyberspace is one place where those borders can be broken down. “There’s no cultural hierarchy [on the Internet],” he says. “It brings very different people together by chance.”

But don’t come to “Out of Area” expecting some kind of theatrical “We Are the World” experience. “I’m not here to make you understand German culture. I’m not here to study your culture,” says Cieslak, who will soon travel to Buenos Aires to begin development of the next stage of the project. “I’m more interested in what happens when cultures crash together and people have to handle it. Maybe some understanding will come out of that, maybe not. I’m more interested in the process of it.”

Perusing the Mutation Web site, though, you can’t help but stumble across universal truths. A Nigerian dealing with a worker’s strike shares frustrations that echo a Richmonder riding out Hurricane Isabel or a Shanghai citizen inconvenienced by the SARS scare. A Lagos resident states: “Often, I try to find meaning [in] the only intricate value of this world, women.” Men across the world concur.

Of all the cities in America, Cieslak chose Richmond for this project because he wanted a “normal” midsized community that didn’t have the internationally recognized image of New York or Chicago. Who would have thought that its relatively low-key demeanor would have given Richmond — and all of us Richmonders — a chance to witness firsthand a mutation that might represent the next step in the evolution of theater? S

“Out of Area” runs at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., at 8 p.m., from Oct. 9-14. Tickets $10-$15. Call 355-2001. For more information go to

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