By Gareth Stevens

At a time when lockdown has had a catastrophic effect on art forms that are normally experienced in public spaces, there has been a rush to make online alternatives. In short these have been “delicious hot and disgusting cold”. Museum tours hosted by robots, virtual Art Galleries – you name it, it’s been tried since the early stages of the pandemic. The fact is, virtual this – and virtual that, will always be just that – virtual. Thankfully, Thaddeus Phillips (world renowned director and performer) along with designer Steven Dufala and inputs from a magician and choreographers, has taken a much needed and more radical approach to online theatre in forming Zoo Motel.

Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel
PICTURES: Emma Costello

A kind of interactive blend of film, theatre and almost vaudeville, it’s as if Derren Brown, Wim Wenders and The Mighty Boosh had hatched this idea after a tequila shot drinking session hosted by Tom Waits.

As a part of the 21-capacity audience for each live show, you receive a virtual hotel key (I was in room 7), a hotel evacuation plan and a set of cards for the more interactive sections of the piece.

Zoo Motel is live performed in a bespoke set, broadcast via Zoom from a village in Colombia, South America where the director Phillips is currently residing. 

I have to say that 10 minutes in I was becoming cynical – put it down to too much screen time and a growing feeling that being in the Zoo Motel was like looking the wrong way down a telescope. Initially it was claustrophobic and seemed pallid in comparison to the visceral nature of raw theatre in the flesh. But then I started to get it, its intrigue, inventiveness and complexity became clear in plain sight.

The Zoo Motel is a stunningly lit cornucopia of disparate objects, and during the performance panning camera angles inter-spersed with animation and a very unusual use of hand-held props give a kind of immediacy and intimacy that goes someway in compensating for the fact the audience is all spread out on different continents.

Having won me over, I did feel that there was an unsettling discontinuity to the piece. One minute we are being asked to sympathize with the hapless protagonist who, after checking in, all of a sudden finds his hotel room door has disappeared, the next we are being shown a card trick. I also think that a preoccupation with trying to make online theatre exciting rather diminished any attempt to intensely engage through raw content and dialogue. But hey ho –  I still thought it was good.

Phillips says of everyone’s tendency for Zoom fatigue, that it was clear to him that he had to find out “how to use every advantage of this format, not
as a replacement for theatre, but as a new form of theatre”. Clearly this is a fledgling attempt at achieving this, but it is hugely innovative and original for a first attempt. There is such potential for the online theatre experience to be more inclusive, less hierarchical and elitist and also for it to attract a diverse global audience for whom attending an actual performance is difficult for whatever reason.

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