Van Ryzin: Your cellphone’s the stage for Steve Moore’s text-only play

Steve Moore admits that he has been a bit cranky about the whole texting thing from time to time.

“I’m not a Luddite,” says the respected Austin playwright, who, by the way, has done technical writing for IBM for years.

But if you’ve spent your artistic efforts over the past two decades crafting thoughtful, critically acclaimed plays that plumb the nature of human relationships and the complexities of interpersonal communication — well, then, the detached, impartial nature of texting might not have much appeal.

Then again, maybe texting does have some creative claim.

“Computer Simulation of the Ocean,” Moore’s latest endeavor, is a play experienced completely by text messages, the story unfolding over a six-month period beginning April 18.

“I’m not just experimenting,” Moore says. “I am really interested in this form of communication and its combination of intimacy and impersonality. Also texting is an inherently untheatrical way of communicating, and that felt like a challenge.”

Part of the Fusebox Festival, the two-week performance art confab that begins this week, “Computer Simulation of the Ocean” is something of a psychological thriller, a little bit of a romance, and it has a bit of sci-fi, a bit of spy story action and a little of the supernatural dashed in.

And given that texting is, as Moore says, inherently untheatrical, how to characterize a play that is not performed by actors on a stage before a live audience?

“I’ve stopped calling it a play and started calling it a story,” says Moore, whose darkly funny play “Not Clown” enjoyed an off-off-Broadway run in 2006 and whose delicate play “Nightswim” traced the friendship of Texas writers Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb.

The narrative logistics of having a text dialogue between two characters texting from two different phone numbers over the course of several months proved too complicated.

So Moore crafted what is essentially a one-sided dialogue. Text appears from a character named Sarah, the story unfolding almost entirely from her perspective.

And like a live play, the timing of “Computer Simulation of the Ocean” is everything.

The story starts Friday, the first text schedule to appear shortly before a 7 p.m. Fusebox Festival performance.

(To sign up, text the word “subscribe” to 469-213-2281. The project is free, though depending on your data plan, some charges may apply.)

In fact, for the duration of the festival, Moore’s timed some texts neatly.

“I wanted to find some way to make the experience of this story a shared experience just like live theater is,” he says. “And since a lot of (Fusebox Festival-goers) have signed up already, I imagined people standing in line, waiting to get into a show, then everybody’s cellphone goes off at the same time.”

After the festival, Moore opted for reasonably congenial times for texts to appear: during lunch hours, not during work hours, not too late at night nor too early in the morning.

For those in Austin, that is.

“There are several people outside the (Central Standard Time zone) who have subscribed, and it’ll be interesting to see how they receive it,” he says.

There’s a maximum of 1,200 subscribers that can participate in “Computer Simulation.” (The budget precluded getting a more expansive text messaging subscription.) And Moore collaborated with artist and computer programmer Zach Booth Simpson to create software that will issue the messages automatically.

Moore says that not all of his theatrical colleagues have expressed an interest in “Computer Simulation.”

“I have had some friends decline to participate because they’ve told me it just doesn’t seem like it’s theater to them,” he says. “I understand that. Part of why we go to the theater is to have a shared experience with other people. But in a way there are similarities to live theater. With both you’re experience something, you’re being told a story in an unexpected manner and in an unexpected way and you’re sharing that story with other people.”

And in the end, the conversation Moore hopes “Computer Simulation” stimulates is a conversation about the nature of conversation itself.

“The art of human-to-human conversation takes practice,” Moore says. “We have to learn how to read the rhythm of a conversation, read how someone else is responding to what we say, learn the art of conversation.

“You wonder about younger people coming up in the world now and how the culture and nature of texting is changing the essential way we’re communicating with each other.”

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