Theater, Reality TV and What Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s reality and there’s fiction: an easy distinction to make, right? Well things aren’t always so cut and dried, especially when we consider the performances we undertake in our real lives and the fictional stories that borrow from reality — the boundaries between what’s true and what’s false often get blurred.

In Playwrights Horizons’ new series, “The Kill One Race,” reality TV meets theater for an examination of the ways we shape our values, form relationships and bounce between the realms of reality and fiction in both our entertainment and our daily lives. This streaming production, and another recent digital theater hybrid, “This American Wife,” reflects how the peculiar combination of theater and reality TV may complicate the viewers’ contract with the art form and their understanding of what is artifice and what is truth.

“The Kill One Race,” conceived by the choreographer Raja Feather Kelly and his company Feath3r Theory, brings us to a dystopia where 24-year-olds become contestants in a reality competition full of social experiments. The most ethical person in the group is granted the honor of dying and ascending to the Empire, a vague Xanadu of eternal comfort and righteousness.

Seven characters compete over seven days that are rife with challenges and schemes and manipulations. You may be thinking of “The Hunger Games” or any of the countless other dystopian works of fiction that involve monitored competitions. Despite the proliferation of these stories, I was still surprised by the variation theater brought to the theme. Filmed at Playwrights Horizons and released over the course of eight overly lengthy episodes, “The Kill One Race” so closely mimics the style of “Big Brother,” “The Real World” and other classic reality series that “theater” feels like a terribly insufficient way to describe it.

Kelly, who also directs, borrows the filming conventions of the genre, with many split screens, confessionals and voyeuristic close-ups. He uses the techniques so well, in fact, that the naturalism is jarring — confusing, even. The performances of the cast, too, are so exact and understated, with each actor having such a clear understanding of his or her character’s disposition and way of thinking that the ethical discussions feel uncannily real.

This is what tripped me up (other than the production’s long run time and the fascinating though similarly overlong Ethics 101 discussions): Was I actually watching some kind of social experiment, featuring real people responding in real ways within the scaffolding of a fictional world?

It reminded me of the discomfort I felt watching “This American Wife,” with its meta play on the Bravo “Real Housewives” franchise that reproduced actual scenes and dialogue from the shows alongside scripted and improvised material. In my review I wondered what was improvised, what was borrowed from the franchise and what was real.

My problem has to do with the question of artifice and honesty — fitting for a show about ethics. I avoid watching reality TV dramas because the performances of these supposedly “real-life” scenarios are too transparent. They feel disingenuous, parodies of reality despite the shows’ claims to the contrary. And this extends beyond the frames of the TV screen — the carefully curated fiction of characters’ stories and their relationships with one another become part of those individuals’ celebrity. It’s profitable.

Though theater isn’t an art form of total honesty either, it is its own kind of artifice; the difference is in the presentation of that fiction. In theater there is the expectation of fantasy — we sit in an audience and wait for the curtains to open. When we step into a theater we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of a show. Reality TV, however, depicts lives that continue without intermissions and characters who actually exist in the world.

When these two realms collide, then, as they do in “The Kill One Race” and “This American Wife,” it warrants a renegotiation of terms between the theatrical production and the audience — a redefinition of the art form and what is generally known and expected of it in its most traditional forms.

I’ve stated my unease with this collision between reality TV and the “honest” fiction of theater, but that’s not to say that this is an aberration — or even an error — that productions ought to avoid. In fact, such contortions and hybridizations of theater and other media allow art to confront audiences with their preconceived notions about which stories should be told in which ways. In the end, perhaps the truest sentiments lie somewhere in the space between reality and theater.

The KILL ONE Race
Through July 4; thekillonerace.com

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