Theater through text: Katherine Catmull story plays out on your phone


Although some people grouse that text messaging is an impersonal way of talking to others, esteemed local playwright Steve Moore thinks the truth is a little more nuanced.

“Oddly, I think we talk less but communicate more — more frequently but also more complexly,” he tells me via text. “I think most people get to be funnier, smarter and more sincere over text than they can typically be in person.”

Case in point as we swap messages back and forth: I feel at ease chatting through a medium that lets me think through a response before sending it. It doesn’t feel strange to send a near-complete stranger an emoji, either, which expresses my point more succinctly than words ever can.

The peculiar dichotomy of text message as simultaneously intimate and impartial is again at the center of one of Moore’s projects. His curiosity about the distinctly 21st-century mode of communication inspired him to create a play in 2014 that unfolded entirely over text messages. Called “Computer Simulation of the Ocean,” the six-month-long endeavor was a big departure from the usual theater pieces he’s done for the past couple of decades. It didn’t need a set, a stage or actors.

Moore is at it once more, but with “Sister of Shattering Glass” he’s hoping to attract a younger audience — exactly the sort of people who might not find it strange to receive a story incrementally on their phones. To pull in that age group, he reached out to young adult novelist and local actress Katherine Catmull, who’s written a couple of fantasy books grounded in magical realism. She created the story based on young characters from one of her novels.

“Sister of Shattering Glass” works much as “Simulation” did. People who sign up to receive the texts, which start on Feb. 17, will get little snippets of story over a period of five months, ending July 27. They might get two to three texts throughout the course of one day and none at all the next, and everyone receives messages at exactly the same time, no matter the time zone. (That’s an adjustment from the last story.)

A new element this time is that some of the texts will come accompanied with “moody, suggestive and surreal” photos from local photographer Annie Gunn, Moore said, and with immersive sound effects from Buzz Moran, the foley artist for “The Intergalactic Nemesis,” a live-action graphic novel of sorts.

They have helped bring the world Catmull envisioned to digital life. Although she featured the two sisters at the center of her first novel, “Summer and Bird,” she found that writing in small snippets almost as short as a tweet was a challenge.

“I’ve been writing novels, and this was like writing a novel in haiku,” she says.

With “Sister,” you aren’t watching the action happen from afar — instead, you become almost part of the story. You receive texts as the father of the two sisters, and you become increasingly concerned when it becomes clear (or maybe not so clear) that they’re trapped in a dark maze behind the mirrors of the world.

Like Moore, Catmull finds the delivery method of the story strikingly compelling.

“To me, because I’m an actor and I see a lot of theater, it’s like you’re an audience member,” she says, dragging her chair directly in front of me. “The actors come in one at a time and sit this close to you. And talk to you really urgently: ‘This is happening, this is happening, and I’m scared about this other thing. Oh my god, I’ve got to go!’ And another actor comes on. It feels so real because it’s all mixed up with texts from your dad, your friends, your work people.”

She said she had long admired Moore’s work (particularly “Nightswim,” about the friendship of Texas writers Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb) and jumped at the chance to work with him. He had a lot of good ideas, she said, about how to advance the story and write it with brevity.

Keeping the audience of readers engaged is particularly important because of the five-month duration of “Sister of Shattering Glass.” Catmull was an excited participant of Moore’s first text-message play — “It’s really fun if you’re doing it with other people,” she says — but she isn’t sure how this one will go because, as a writer, the medium is unexplored territory for her.

Moore isn’t too worried, however. The duration “lets the story feel unlike anything else,” he writes me in a text message.

I don’t normally conduct an interview partially through text message, but it just feels apt given why Moore and I are speaking in the first place. He’s on board with the story-through-text format if it means drawing younger people to reading.

“The idea that (‘Simulation’) was able to come to young people in a way that was more comfortable to them than adults, that was gratifying in a way,” Moore says. “I decided to do this again because it could be a gateway to reading books, reading stories.”

And it doesn’t take much to become involved. Just pay for your $6 ticket on the play’s Kickstarter campaign site, text a verification code and wait for the adventure to reach your phone. If you fork over more than the required amount, the money goes into a pool that young people can tap into — so it “feels more like a fundraising campaign with a good heart,” Moore says. Ticket sales end Monday.

“It’s a tiny adventure,” Catmull says. “You don’t have to hire a babysitter or leave the house or sit in an uncomfortable theater where it’s too hot or too cold. You just get a little ‘twing’ on your phone every now and then. I’m trying to get people to be a little more adventurous with their art.”



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