UT alum uses text messages as an outlet for theater


Eleanor Dearman

After receiving a late night text, UT theatre and dance assistant professor and playwright Kirk Lynn looked at his phone expecting to see a message from a family member or friend. Instead he saw a text from Sally Boyd, a fictional character in UT alum Steve Moore’s play “Computer Simulation of the Ocean.”  

The play, produced by Physical Plant Theater and featured at Austin’s annual Fusebox Festival, is viewed entirely through a series of text messages from Boyd. Boyd addresses the receiver directly as if the two are in a relationship and in the middle of a fight. She begins the conversation by apologizing for an unknown mistake, and the messages gradually reveal more about the plot. 

The play does not have a physical venue, rather, it is experienced entirely through a text message subscription that lasts six months.  

Similar projects have been done through mediums such as Twitter, but usually they are presented as episodes in a continuous narrative. While Moore’s play does have a plot, it is not just pieces of a story being sent to a receiver. The person on the other end of Boyd’s texts is a character in the play. 

“The idea is that you, the person receiving the messages, are so mad at the person who is writing you that you’re not going to write her back,” Moore said. “So that sets up the sort of one-sidedness of the conversation.”

Lynn assisted in editing the piece and served as a test subject for the play’s text message delivery system. The public will begin receiving messages on April 18 at the beginning of the Fusebox Festival.

“It made me feel like a player in the play in this great way,” Lynn said. “It’s fun to get seemingly private messages on your phone from a character.”

Over a period of six months, participants will sporadically receive five or six text messages each week from Boyd. Moore worked to make sure the texts are not so frequent that they become obnoxious, and audience members are free to unsubscribe at anytime. 

“Computer Stimulation of the Ocean” touches on the paradoxical idea of personal technology. On one hand, technology can reduce human interaction; on the other, it can simultaneously connect people. Moore said that a text message can often be more intimate than an in-person discussion. 

“We have to be careful to remember how to have a conversation with a person face-to-face,” Moore said. “But if we consider all technology and ways of communicating that are based on technology as bad, or put them in one category, then I think we’re simplifying things too much.”

Moore said he has thought a lot about whether or not this piece can be considered a theater performance since it lacks a venue, costumes and props. He has come to the conclusion that the show is theater in the sense that it unites an audience in the same story at the same time, just like a traditional play. The main difference is that the play is viewed on your phone rather than on a stage.

“Think of theater as a communal experience where you go into a space and watch something happen with other people,” Moore said. “In a sense you still have some of that going on because you’ll have [these texts] happening to multiple people at the same time even though it doesn’t happen on a theatrical stage.” 

Fusebox Festival chose to feature the play because of its unorthodox outlet.

“For us, this is a really interesting place to think about art,” said Brad Carlin, Fusebox Festival’s managing director. “It’s art that’s happening in the tools in our everyday lives — in our pockets and in our purses.” 

Lynn said the merging of theater and technology is nothing new.

“I think theater always loves technology, and it loves innovators who want to manipulate the technology,” Lynn said. “Frankly, so much of our communication with one another is through text message that having characters text message you makes perfect sense.”