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Live-action blogs

Forget traditional scripts. In UCLA's experimental `The Bloggers Project,' cast members act out ardent writings from the Web.

April 18, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Read a bunch of blogs. Copy. Paste. Act.

That, in a nutshell, was the classroom assignment UCLA professor Mel Shapiro gave to students in his Advanced Graduate Acting course last fall. The fruits of those efforts have evolved into "The Bloggers Project," an experimental theater piece based on real weblogs that began taking final shape a few nights ago at the school's Freud Playhouse.

Cast members, inspecting scenic designer Francois-Pierre Couture's labyrinth-like set for the first time, amble through a gallery of historic mock-blog installations including a booth-like "cave" that will house actor Brian Allman as he blog-speaks from the vantage point of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Next to the glass-walled "prison" compound where actress Jamaica Perry would be faux-blogging as Black Power activist Angela Davis, circa 1971, the actors pause in front of a pedestal crowned with a bust of Marie Antoinette. Amy Rush, the actress who would soon be thrusting her own head into the display, pops her bubble gum and wonders out loud, "Are people going to be able to turn me on and off, or do I just keep talking?"

"They push the button and the light goes on, and then you just keep talking," Shapiro replies.

And the blather goes on.

In an adjoining chamber decorated with a semblance of the U.S. presidential seal, a quartet of TV sets awaited pre-taped opinion pieces by actor/pundits such as Matt Weedman, who compiled his comments from the liberal DailyKos.com site. To ensure what Shapiro wryly calls "fair and balanced" coverage, Jason Greenfield's televised tape loop features hand puppets voicing Republican and Democratic perspectives on the Iraq War.

In the Sex Blogs section, video monitors, perched in windowed cubicles inspired by Amsterdam's voyeur-friendly red light district, will broadcast intimate confessions by actors recounting their fictitious bedroom exploits.

If the actors seem at times like tourists, it's only because "The Bloggers Project" represents new terrain in more ways than one. Until a few months ago, most of the "Bloggers Project's" 11 actors knew nothing about blogs but quickly embraced the Internet as a research tool. For example, Rush, a self-described technophobe, culled material from Marie Antoinette fan sites -- yes, they exist -- to stitch together the queen's final post before being decapitated. "The first line of my blog, according to my research, is an actual quote of Marie Antoinette -- but that's according to some guy in Illinois who writes a blog about her," she says with a laugh. "Whether or not it's true...."

Internet-based rants

Shapiro, a congenially rumpled veteran director who collaborated with playwright John Guare ("The House of Blue Leaves") and Sammy Davis Jr. before joining UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television faculty in 1990, started paying attention to bloggers during the John Kerry Swift Boat controversy. He decided to steer his acting students toward Internet-based rants, hoping they would translate the swarm of online info-pinion into fiery performances.

"I got fascinated with these bloggers who were doing investigative reporting with this incredible passion and wondered if there was a way of putting this kind of thing on stage," Shapiro says. "I kept saying to the actors, 'It doesn't make any difference what political side you're on, but you should get involved in what the arguments are on these issues. What about this war in Iraq?' I was trying to provoke them into an involvement with these things, and then the project started to develop from there."

To prime his actors for the show's overtly political material, Shapiro first urged them to create faux blogs for historical figures. Beyond the informational nuggets mined online, the blogosphere's raw spontaneity rubbed off on some of the performers.

When actor Allman began Googling Gacy to research his piece on the Illinois murderer, he related easily to the Web's unfiltered spew. "Traditional scripts," he noted, "are written and rewritten and tested and changed before audiences so they're very concrete and formulaic. Blogs come directly from the blogger's mind. You find spelling mistakes and run-on sentences and incomplete thoughts, which I think is accurate about how quick and choppy people think and communicate in this MTV age."

For her three-minute televised sex blog, Nicole Reding turned to Washingtonienne, Washington, D.C., intern Jessica Cutler's online diary detailing her affairs with Beltway big shots. "Jessica said in an interview that there is really no difference between her blog and writing down one's conquests on the bathroom wall," says Reding. "Blogs are sort of the Shakespeare soliloquy of the modern day, except penned by much inferior writers. The possibilities for characterization are endless."

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