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Online Video Plays

By Artistic Director Jamil Khoury

It is fair to surmise that Silk Road Rising is forever scouting new frontiers. That we are so often described as “edgy” is testimony to what I like to call our boundary pushing ways. And it’s precisely said wanderlust that’s led us to an exciting new concept: the online video play. The definition of a video play is still evolving, as it is neither a filmed play nor a feature film, but rather a marriage of genres; a hybrid of theatrical language and design aesthetics enacted on a theatrical stage yet conveyed through a decidedly cinematic lens and engaged on a monitor or screen. It is conceived for the stage, interpreted filmically, then rendered online. Video plays leverage the unique and distinct strengths of both theatre and film and employ those strengths accordingly in support of the story being told. The onus is placed on embracing "the best of both genres" while eschewing perceived limits and constraints. Ideally, the video play rejects any binaries of stage and screen and strives to create a viewing experience that approximates elements of attending both live theatre and the cinema. 

For a video play to succeed, audiences should recognize this hybrid form as an asset, a desirable medium of storytelling, not as a detraction or a compromise or a half baked version of its antecedents. We believe that words like “play” and “theatre” and “performance” are dynamic, not static. They evolve, they change, they recalibrate. From where we stand, a video play is indeed a theatrical experience, one fully worthy of the title “play.” So what began as an experiment now supports a central thesis: the online video play is a compelling and cost effective mechanism for deepening our mission and expanding our reach. 

As we are often reminded, there exists a hunger for the work we do well beyond the boundaries of Chicagoland. Individuals that have happened upon our website, many of whom live outside the U.S., have impressed upon us the notion that the internet is the 21st century’s Silk Road. The stories we tell and the issues we grapple with deserve a far larger audience than can be accommodated in a stationary venue. In other words, our voice belongs as much online as it does on stage, for the audiences to whom our unique mission speaks are as likely to live in Shanghai, Lahore, Beirut, Philadelphia, and Denver as they are in Chicago.

If Silk Road Rising is a global theatre for a global city, then why not connect to global audiences? Yes, our work is created and produced in English, creating for many a linguistic barrier. But English has emerged as the preeminent global language and subtitling our work becomes doable with the appropriate resources. For while the reach of a bricks-and-mortar venue is defined by either physical proximity or the ability to travel, a virtual theatre transcends location. Yet it is precisely our Chicago base that affords us the freedom and protection to create the sort of challenging, controversial, even prohibitively dangerous content that is so urgently desired where it is most violently suppressed, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is not a coincidence that much of our online work is being viewed in non-democratic countries presumably from the privacy of people’s homes. 

The National Endowment for the Arts today identifies the internet as the nation’s fastest growing medium for arts engagement. Video content posted online has become the single most important means of content distribution for artists and producers the world over. We would also argue that the internet is the most democratic and egalitarian and accessible arts destination humankind has ever known. No one can accuse the internet of being elitist or delineated by socio-economic class. If we are to create art that is relevant to the world we live in, if we are to revive theatre as an art form for all people, then we must bring our art to where people actually live. 

Online video plays incite the sort of discourse and dialogue that galvanize us to create art each day. We have long maintained that theatre artist deserve a seat at the table in our local, national, and international conversations. Online video plays are an expedient, accessible venue for laying claim to that seat, instead of waiting for the invitation to arrive in the mail.

ONLINE NEW PLAY DEVELOPMENT

As evidenced by Silk Road Rising’s online and interactive ten step new play development and civic engagement project Mosque Alert , the internet is positioned to become America’s next great arena for the development of new plays. The traditional new play development process of closed workshops and public staged readings, while absolutely vital, needs to be open to a parallel track—a virtual process that a) creates greater access and opportunities for artists and b) connects greater numbers of people to both the artist and the artistic process. It is our way of democratizing and collectivizing the playwriting process. From character development to plot points to metaphors to thematic throughlines to dialogue even, participant feedback is solicited. Mosque Alert explores the resistance to the building of mosques in communities across the U.S. It is subject matter that can inspire a dramatically compelling story as much as a pressing national conversation. It is our way of blending artistic creation with civic engagement—a key principle at Silk Road Rising.

The groundbreaking internet based process we developed for Mosque Alert, which will culminate in both a full length stage play of the same time and a series of online video plays, aligns with current practices of social media and affords each virtual participant the capacity to influence, co-create, view, and review throughout the entire play development cycle. We like to think of it as a spiritual convening of the individual with the art. It is direct, uninterrupted, and takes place whenever and wherever the individual so desires.