“I want to be out there,” Solomon Parker, an actor, said wistfully of the demonstrations, in a Zoom meeting that day.
“I need to figure out where the piece fits in the wider scheme of things,” observed John King, a playwright.
“It’s wrong not to include a Black writer in this piece,” said Rex Daugherty, the director. “The board,” he added, “is fully behind this.”
And so, more than a month into building a play remotely, with collaborators sheltering from D.C. to Dublin, late June performances of “Being Here” were canceled. And Daugherty, Solas Nua’s artistic director, began to figure out with the help of his team how to push forward anew.
It appeared to an outside observer following the progress of the project that the whole thing might fall apart. But others who had been in the virtual rehearsal room with Daugherty could not imagine the production ceasing then and there.
“Rex won’t let that happen,” confided Rebecca Wahls, the assistant director at the time.
He didn’t. On Thursday, under Daugherty’s direction, Solas Nua unveiled online the piece that has emerged from the company’s distress: a play with no alphabetical title, just three emoji that, for want of a better solution, has been termed “The Emoji Play.” Written by Jeremy Keith Hunter, a Black Washington actor-playwright who came aboard in July, the work is a one-act comedy that takes the form of a digital class in “Social Media for the Young Elderly.” Performed on Zoom, with an important supporting performance by WhatsApp, the playlet also involves the relationship between the course’s instructors, portrayed by Da’Von Moody, a D.C. actor, and Cormac Elliott, an actor based in London.
If both the play’s path and the use of the Internet by the audience are somewhat unusual, so was the role I played in watching its development. A critic normally isn’t a fly on the wall for the messy gestation period before the birth of a dramatic work. But from the early days of “Being Here” to the ultimate shaping of “The Emoji Play,” I was a witness and occasional sounding board.
Daugherty — whose work I’ve reviewed several times — and I were both interested in how artists and critics could learn more about each other’s functions, could demystify our roles in some small way. Social media has brought many reviewers into far closer proximity with theater artists than ever before. It occurred to us that exploring how the mistrust that often develops between critics and artists might be mitigated was worthwhile, especially when live theater has been sidelined and many theater events are occurring in the digital space.
I ended up learning far more than I contributed. I gained an appreciation for all of the granular exertions that go into making a play, the thousands of daily questions and decisions; the contributory sources of inspiration that affect every aspect of what an audience eventually sees. An actor can point a playwright to a line that’s funnier than the one he composed; a designer can illuminate for the director the meaning of a scene.
The exigencies of a theater company of limited means sometimes clash with the practical needs of its artists. After the workshop and rehearsal of “Being Here,” original actors Parker and Josh Adams had to leave because of prior commitments. The protracted period of development that resulted in “The Emoji Play” also claimed Wahls, who left for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Moody — Parker’s roommate — and Elliott were then cast in Hunter’s play, and Mekala Sridhar, now based in San Diego but who previously worked at Studio Theatre, replaced Wahls as assistant director.
At the center throughout the nearly half-year of development have been Navid Azeez, a D.C. musician-actor who serves as technical director; King, the original playwright; and Daugherty, who after covid-19 struck found a new mission in exploring the meaning of theater on the Web.
“ ‘The Emoji Play’ cannot proceed without an audience. It is baked into the bones of the show,” he said. “What feels special is you feel needed. That’s my theory of what will make this feel like theater. That has been my first fascination with this moment. The second was, how do we create more seats at the table?”
The project grew out of another cancellation, a big production for Solas Nua: a revival of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” in which Moody was supposed to play the lead. That production was to have 11 actors and a support team of 11. The pandemic scuttled the show, which was to have cost $46,000, and some fraction of that money was redirected to the new project.
“Of course there have been challenges, and we’re still finding out how technology helps and hinders,” Daugherty said recently. “I told the team this feels like an ensemble. We’ve created that same vulnerability that you feel when you are in the room together. It takes extra generosity to channel that energy through the screen.”
Indeed, some of the creators of “The Emoji Play” have never met in person; they know each other only as digital talking heads. While Moody rehearses in his apartment in Silver Spring, Elliott works from his flat in London. King, who is working on a separate digital play for Solas Nua that uses Google Maps, follows along from Dublin, and Sridhar keeps track of the process from California.
“On one hand, Zoom gives you access to literally any actor you want, because it doesn’t matter where you are,” said Hunter, who lives in Waldorf. “However, there just simply is no replacement for [live] theater. As connected as we are, there is no replacement for if we were sitting around each other at a table.”
“On screen,” he continued, “there are delays, there’s a lag, there’s an Internet outage. Anything can come and derail the momentum. Whereas in the space, you’re all focused on it.”
Watching the creative team wrestle with devising something that people would want to actively respond to has been the challenge from the start. “What is our plan if the audience absolutely refuses to engage in the chat?” was a question Azeez posed all the way back on May 6, the first day I was permitted to eavesdrop. It remained the struggle, as the team went through multiple workshops and formal rehearsals. At one early point, a virtual character called DOLL-E was invented as an intermediary between audience and actors, but that proved too artificial and was dropped.
Eventually, the tumult of the Black Lives Matter movement, not the pandemic, pushed Daugherty and Solas Nua in a direction that gave the project both an impetus and shape. The artistic director was looking to enlist a playwright of color to broaden perspective and, he said, expand the company’s relationship with artists outside its traditional scope. “Rex reached out to me via email,” Hunter recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, what do you need me to do?’ ”
Hunter went to work over the summer, conferring with King via Zoom breakout rooms and coming up with what would become “The Emoji Play.” In a workshop in late July, and in rehearsals in September, Elliott and Moody submitted to the seemingly endless revisions and refinements that the team debated.
As late as mid-September, they were all finding the rhythm of the piece, which starts with the character called Da’Von welcoming the audience to the class, and that shifts to Da’Von’s trying to draw out the character called Cormac on the sensitive subject of his breakup with his lover. As Moody is American and Elliott is Irish, some cultural references still had to be clarified: At one point on Sept. 14, Elliott finished reading through a sequence and had the rest of the Zoom panelists in stitches when he asked: “What is ‘Popeye’s chicken?’ ”
Now, at long last, all those twists and turns have resulted in a work that is being shared with the public, for $20 a pop. “Rex has described this as a laboratory for trying things out. That’s a luxury you don’t always get as a theater artist,” King said. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before.”