Sarah Gancher and Jared Mezzocchi : How Collaboration is Dramaturgy Between Playwright and Multimedia Creator

by Drew Barker
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Between this interview (edited for length and clarity from October 2022) and the publication of this issue, Gancher and Mezzocchi’s 2020 production of Russian Troll Farm won an OBIE Award. Since it was one of three productions to be given such an honor in the category of “Digital+Virtual+Hybrid Production,” all of which were reviewed over the last three seasons due to the pandemic, one wonders how such recognition will impact and inspire other digital+virtual+hybrid projects in the future. Regardless, it can certainly be argued that Gancher and Mezzocchi’s production (co-directed by Elizabeth Williamson) met the historical moment better than most digital theatre productions. The play satirically addresses the weaponization of misinformation via social media during a presidential election season that mirrored not only the prior presidential election season, but also the weaponization of misinformation in other parts of the world. Ultimately, using satire and a suite of digital technologies allowed the production to feel familiar and dangerous at the same time.

If new times demand new forms, what will we miss if we hesitate to embrace the progress made in terms of theatrical creativity and audience engagement? We should remember what Barbara Fuchs declares: “At its most elaborate, digital theater does more than simulate the real: it complicates and remixes it, foregrounding the artifice and conventionality in how we think about production, performance, audiences, and theater itself.” [1]

Playwright Sarah Gancher and multimedia creator Jared Mezzocchi collaborated on the critically-acclaimed, digital production of Russian Troll Farm in late 2020, and are now working on a new project — even as other productions of Russian Troll Farm continue their success. In this interview by Performing Arts Librarian, Drew Barker, Gancher and Mezzocchi discuss how their creative process has evolved.

BARKER:  Your 2020 production of Russian Troll Farm was a benchmark for digital theatre during the pandemic. Now you’re both teaming up again, and the word “epic” has been tossed around. What can you tell us about this new project you’re working on?

GANCHER:  We are working on an epic about deep time that is set throughout all the different eras of history present in one Brooklyn bar — Sunny’s in Red Hook. It has been in continuous operation since 1890. And of course, there’s a lot of history on that spot before that point, and there will be a lot of history on that spot after this time. We are asking the question: What would you learn if you were able to see all of the history in one spot superimposed on top of all the moments of history superimposed on top of each other? If you were able to hop back and forth between them, remix and match them? What would we find out about ourselves, and what will we find out about the patterns that we live?

We’re hoping that when superimposed that they all add up to make a giant question that none of them make individually. I think that it’s going to be a massive participatory art project sort of made by the community, consisting of a film shoot at Sunny’s with snippets of video that are like scenes or seamless moments from across all the different eras of Sunny’s, and then after playing their part in that people can walk down the street to this big warehouse where there will be an installation showing everything that’s being shot at Sunny’s superimposed on top of each other and allowing people to hop back and forth between them and see the composite story as it begins to emerge. And there’s bluegrass involved because of the famous bluegrass jam that happens at Sunny’s. It will also have an on-line component. It’s very cool, but it’s currently hard to explain.

MEZZOCCHI:  I would add that it’s a two-part process for an audience member to participate in the scene, and then go into an entirely different space, and see how that participation plays a role in a much wider, larger container of time and space. And now you’re both the viewer of a kind of a gallery installation of live mixed video, while also seeing yourself reflected inside of it. And so, you’re kind of unlocking the history of the place, but also you’re participating in a new part of the history of the place. What does it mean when we are aware of our own immediate footprint in time? It’s like a widening of the consciousness of the participant. And I think that’s the big question for me — what does that do to a person when they know that they’re a part of the history of a place?

GANCHER:  It’ll be an experiment and obsession, and it’s sort of in two senses: one where we’ll literally have people playing music and jamming, and then also there’s going to be a kind of like a visual jam session as people, essentially solo with images taking turns, matching the images to the music, finding and making meaning in the connection between these different moments.

MEZZOCCHI:  So, perhaps we can create a jam session, both audibly and visually. All of those things are for me, as a technologist, taking the discoveries of Russian Troll Farm which made that thing feel more full of breath in life. Because the editor was present, the editor was doing the thing live. Now in this residency [at Bethany Arts Center] working with Sarah, watching Sarah now take the reins, I don’t think our collaboration would have led to this without Russian Troll Farm. I also don’t think that my technological inventions would have brought me where I am today without Russian Troll Farm.

GANCHER:  I think that we both — if I may speak for Jared and I certainly intend to — we found Russian Troll Farm so thrilling because we were making up something that nobody had ever done before, and that we weren’t sure whether or not it was going to work, or how it would work. And so we had to also invent a process, and we both got really into that. I mean, it’s painstaking, it’s slow. It’s frustrating. But it’s also so fun. And so cool, because you feel like you’re making a new form.

MEZZOCCHI:  And I think that, I don’t know, the older I’m getting, the more rare I’m realizing it is to find people that you can kind of run around in the dark with. And the pandemic felt like the darkest time. And I felt so fortunate with Sarah, with Elizabeth [Williamson], with that cast, that we all in the middle of a pandemic found each other and said, “Let’s keep playing tag for a second” I wanted to hold onto that accidental joy that was found in the middle of horrific trauma, because that was a joy that I’ve never felt before, ever.

BARKER:  Sarah, you’ve written that as a playwright you’re obsessed with questions of how history shapes us. How has the pandemic shaped your storytelling process?

GANCHER:  My main experience of the pandemic was as a parent trying to raise a five year old, who became a six year old, and then a seven year old, all while in a shoebox apartment. I went from being a full time playwright, writing a minimum of 40 hours a week to virtually having no writing time at all, and kind of going insane. It was a nightmare, watching all of the things that I had planned that I was so excited for all fall apart and crumble. But I do think those ashes have turned out to be very fertile for me, because there have been multiple things that I never would have done, never would have tried, had life continued on its original trajectory.

Russian Troll Farm in particular created an appetite to try new things more. So, I just finished the first draft of lyrics for my first musical book, where I’m also writing the music. Considering this new project with Jared, which I’m so hyped on now, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to attempt it before. And I don’t think that anybody would have thought about offering me that opportunity before Russian Troll Farm. If we’re considering the pandemic as a whole politically, the themes continued to resonate with Russian Troll Farm — disinformation, mass delusion, echo chambers, mass hysteria, and the fact that our collective unconscious seems spiraling into a deep depression — and I don’t know, we should probably get on that.

BARKER:  Indeed. Things were different for you, Jared, but it was still an upheaval, right?

MEZZOCCHI:  Yeah, I feel like everything changed for me. I look back on the very beginning, when we did She Kills Monsters [at the University of Maryland in April 2020]. Because I decided to call the chair and say, “Don’t cancel it, we have an opportunity to do research here.” And I made that call to her while I was in a panic down in Arkansas after a regional theatre production of Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime that I was directing had just shut down. It had been a moment of real, positive, directorial growth for me that was stripped away the day before tech. And so I look back on that and I don’t know why I made that phone call. And I also don’t know why that same day, I called my board at Andy’s Summer Playhouse and said, “Cancel the summer. Because if we cancel now, then we don’t spend any more money preparing for a summer season that won’t happen, and therefore we have more money to deal with what this brings. And let’s go weird.”

I remember the thrill of being in a support system at UMD and at Andy’s that allowed me to take a risk, because the safety net was more educational in both of those realms. And that put me in different shoes, so then I felt more courageous when walking into my freelance life and calling Sarah, which happened about two weeks later. And so, I think that being in two educational environments allowed me — and I’m really saying this for the first time — allowed me the courage and to say, “Fuck it. Like, it’s research.” The flip to using the term “research” was a big thing for me, and that hasn’t changed. And I think that getting the recognition, sharing the lessons learned, getting the positive press, and then making more connections made me realize the power of being an experimenter who could produce things, produce things quickly, and vocalize the flaws of each experiment. Suddenly the power of discovery was the thing, and I’m not ever going to forget that.

BARKER:  How do words and design influence you both now during your creative process in terms of dramaturgy? Is it like asking about the chicken and the egg? Or, how is the story influenced by the format?

GANCHER:  I think it’s both chicken and egg. And nobody knows where either one came from. One of the nicest things that anybody’s ever said to me in my life was when Jared said much of what he technologically invented for Russian Troll Farm only happened because of the demands of the script. A lot of people presumed that it was written for Zoom, but in fact it was barely adapted for that format. In my brain it had always been for the stage.

Now in this latest residency, as we began to iterate, I start thinking about the story. What is the event? Sometimes I write “scratch drafts,” like sort of pre-writing, like scenes, but they don’t even have character names yet, you know? I’ve never shown anybody in my life work that early, but I showed it to Jared. And then that sort of kickstarted him thinking from the container and also asking, “What is the event?” What will the tech for this need to look like? And, as we ping pong back and forth, we influence each other.

MEZZOCCHI:  I would add to that if you’re coming from content, and I’m coming from form, we’re both kind of saying, “Here’s how I would take your offering and make it function inside of my brain,” and vice versa. If the text is the content constant, and the tech is the variable, here’s how function can form and then flip it and say, if the tech is the constant, and the text is the variable, here’s what happens there. Tech is a tool, and function is the space that we’re kind of finger painting in. That to me feels pretty subversive to the industry standards.

GANCHER:  It’s more related to the sort of experimental devising world that we actually both come from — nobody knows that we’re both musicians, and nobody knows that we both come from the world of devising and experimental stuff. It’s actually quite key to the way that we work together, and it reminds me of my favorite Suzan Lori Parks quote: “Form is content.” And I think that I’m trying to work with Jared not like a playwright traditionally works with the designer, but like the other half of my brain, or like I’m the other half of his brain. Also, his live video editing skills responded to hearing the rhythm in the words, which totally amplified the humor and timing in Russian Troll Farm in a unique way.

BARKER:  Jared, among many other things on Twitter you’ve talked about mediaturgy. Can you comment on how you position that in your current theatrical practice?

MEZZOCCHI:  That idea was actually based on a course I teach. It’s not about just telling stories on digital terms. We ask questions like: Why and how are we using technology to drive the story forward? What’s its point of view for the story? How is it used differently for each character? It’s not just spectacle. Mediaturgy informs choices which then contributes to the overall dramaturgy. Ideally, it allows for more collaboration, with the actors understanding a new language within a new process, too. Digital storytelling should be seen as a scene partner.

GANCHER:  I would add that mediaturgy makes you consider new questions as well. For example, how are you casting the audience? Are they spying on the characters? How does the story move in digital theatre? It’s a bit of a filmic question, too, of course. Does it move in jumps, does it move in fades? Does it root us down in one spot, or does it disorient us? But more importantly, does it live up to our vision?

MEZZOCCHI:  It was helpful that the world slammed to a halt, and we had to interrogate how we use and connect through technology. As a society, and as a theatre community, in order to get to the necessary technological solutions we must also address the problems of how we use technology. We’re continuing to learn how to use the tech as a tool, not have the technology use us.

GANCHER:  In this new process, the whole team is writing with you. As someone who teaches writing, I want to encourage that kind of collaboration even though it’s scary and difficult. We need to find the people who can make that work. (Twitter: @jaredmezzocchi)

Drew Barker is the Performing Arts Librarian at the University of Maryland at College Park. As a dramaturg he has worked at Triad Stage (NC), Round House Theatre (MD), Center Stage (MD), and Theatre J (DC). He was the curator for the exhibits The Art & Craft of Puppetry (2022), Remembrance & Resilience (2021) and The Triumph of Isabella: Exploring Performance Through Art (2018-19) at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library. His research and creative projects include information design and literacy, the U.S. Civil War, and the working relationship between playwright Naomi Wallace and historian Marcus Rediker.

[1]  Barbara Fuchs, Theater of Lockdown: Digital and Distanced Performance in a Time of Pandemic. (London: Methuen Drama, 2022), 25.