Virtual Experiments Give Igor Golyak’s Local Theater a Global Stage
As the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations slowly gains steam, the reality of a post-pandemic performing arts industry is beginning to feel almost within reach. The prospect of returning to beloved venues for in-person performances in the perhaps-not-so-distant future begs the question: what role will virtual performance play when audiences are able to gather in person once again?
For Boston Conservatory at Berklee theater faculty member Igor Golyak, new experiments in virtual theater making are just the beginning of a new frontier. “We’re on the brink of something incredible,” says Golyak, who is also artistic director of the Needham, Massachusetts-based Arlekin Players Theatre. Golyak has spent the last year reimagining the possibilities of theater for a socially distant world, attracting new audiences and big-time collaborators in the process.
Most recently, Arlekin’s Zero Gravity Virtual Performance Lab (zero-G) presented The Cherry Orchard: A New Media Workshop, which combined film, theater, and video game technology to create an interactive theater experience in which the audience accesses playwright Anton Chekhov’s computer, where six of his classic characters live in a virtual space. The company presented the workshop in partnership with the Baryshnikov Arts Center (led by renowned dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a 2020 Boston Conservatory at Berklee Honorary Doctorate recipient) and the Cherry Orchard Festival. Featuring Tony nominee Jessica Hecht (Breaking Bad, A View from the Bridge), Anna Baryshnikov (Dickinson), and Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov, Golyak says the workshop was “phase 1 of a larger project” with plans to open as a hybrid performance in New York in 2022.
Baryshnikov Arts Center was also one of several organizations to copresent Arlekin’s State vs. Natasha Banina, an online interactive performance that ran from June 2020 through February 2021 through partnerships with companies around the world. The one-woman show portrays a teenage Russian orphan on trial for attempted manslaughter and takes place in a Zoom courtroom where the audience serves as jurors. The production was a global success and earned high praise as a New York Times Critic’s Pick: “The verdict is in: Zoom can, in fact, be an effective new stage for theater.”
WATCH: State vs. Natasha Banina Trailer
Golyak explains that these virtual presentations have given his company a new level of exposure and global reach previously unthinkable for a small regional theater like Arlekin. “Whether it’s a New York Times editor, a Hollywood producer, or a mom living in Dorchester with a new entryway into theater, they’re all coming to the show,” he says. In addition, the convenience of virtual performance has provided a new access point for first-time theater goers. “This really democratizes theater. If you’re someone who might be interested in theater, but you don’t want to pay for a babysitter, $200 for tickets, and parking, now you can experience it from home. And if you don’t like it, you can just close your computer.”
Often describing his recent work as "experiments," Golyak relishes the thrill of discovering new forms of artistic expression. To create these immersive virtual theater experiences, he worked with an international team of designers with such titles as “game engine and interaction designer” and “virtual set and environment designer” and utilized emerging software to connect the virtual and real worlds.
His goal is to bring these experiments with emerging technology into the classroom at Boston Conservatory. “It’s just going to get better and better. Hopefully I’ll get something right, and someone else will improve on it.”