What Is Theater's Place In The Digital World? Matthew Gasda Has The Answer

In an era when clout and fame are driven by social media and entertainment happens online, one has to wonder what will become of theater. One playwright finds a way forward.

By Leonardo Bevilacqua

Photos by Marcus Maddox

Published

Matthew Gasda can teach creatives of any ilk an important lesson: to be successful as an artist, you’ve got to produce your work. The Brooklyn-based playwright has no illusions about the art form in which he labors, stating, “Mainstream theatre [has become] unbearably safe, boring and ideological.” Over the course of our conversations that happened after a few readings of a play he’s developing, Zoomers, I got a sense of his frustration with the decline of American theatre. Still, his strivings, as evidenced in the community he’s building at the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research, where he shows his plays and teaches, paint a picture of a hopeful, innovative, and inspired artist actively working towards making theatre relevant to a new generation.


Theatre is a hard sell these days, even to fellow creatives and members of the literati. In Gasda’s Substack, Novalis, he writes: “Theater is divisive because of what it has to do: allow for impossible conversations without airing dirty laundry—gossip about humanity without gossiping about humans.” His reckoning with the form at large is reminiscent of other theatre artists and playwrights like Antonin Artaud, who was famously rejected by André Breton, and other French surrealists who decried theatre as a pedestrian and lower art form relative to visual art and poetry. Gasda, like Artaud, succeeds in elevating the art form by making performances more intimate and blurring the line between audience member and performer. He involves audiences in the ruse that is live performance, using inclusion in a scene as bait for the clout chaser in all of us.

“He involves audiences in the ruse that is live performance, using inclusion in a scene as bait for the clout chaser in all of us.”

He rose to popularity at a time when a primer for the Dimes Square scene was in demand. He wrote and staged Dimes Square, which gave insight into the inner sanctum of the burgeoning scene. People were intrigued by his observations and continue to take the G, stroll down McGuiness, and crowd into a Greenpoint loft to be a part of the lives of his charismatic, “cool,” and deeply flawed characters.


Going to a Gasda play is like meeting people at a trendy bar or party – there’s an excitement to hanging among the era’s “bright young things.” When you ask attendees of his plays, readings, and workshops why they attend, a similar phrase gets tossed around: “I like to know what people are thinking.” His straightforward, no-frills, and immersive approach to theatre brings in people who previously hadn’t seen a play or have negative preconceptions about the art form.


Live theatre, in a digital world, can be a form of rebellion and respite, much like The Drunken Canal was in its opposition to digital publications. Gasda, ever the enlightened luddite, interrogates truths in the digital age, forcing his young characters to speak without the crutch of internet lingo and to face reality without a “self-care” break or a “little treat.” Gasda’s skill as a playwright is his ability to build characters that tragically discover they don’t have the vocabulary to communicate their tragedies or that they’ve allowed technology and/or modernity to take away their will. There’s humor in the writing to put audiences at ease, but also a sinister side to the brief moments of recognition that sometimes lead characters to tragic ends.

“Going to a Gasda play is like meeting people at a trendy bar or party – there’s an excitement to hanging among the era’s 'bright young things.'”

Uncle Vanya, which saw a revival of performances in a loft in the Flatiron directed by Jack Serio, uses a similar format to reach audiences in New York but with older material. Gasda confessed, “David Cromer showed up to a bunch of my plays before launching his Vanya: he and his director Jack, also [were] in attendance on occasion.” As a pioneer in the recent revival of living room theater performances, I asked him what sets it apart from traditional theatre, to which he remarked, “You’re bumping up against what I call the 3 1/2 wall. You're working with very intimate material right in front of people, but it's important to keep your distance too…I don't like purely impulsive acting or purely mental/filmic acting… acting becomes an act of ontology in which a new, third person, neither character nor performer, is allowed to emerge, mediated by the actor, director, and audience.” When attending his performances, Gasda makes efforts to foster a sense of community before and throughout the show, recognizing how alienating theatre can be.


Gasda is also an accomplished writer who saw playwrighting as a way to get readers in closer contact with his ideas. When I asked Gasda about the title of his new play, Zoomers, he replied, “Like with Dimes Square, I start with the basic premise that I find…funny. From there, I proceeded to intellectualize it a little bit. A Zoomer, to me, is a new social type--in the Max Weber sense--who reflects and embodies the pathologies of growing up on the Internet and coming of age during the pandemic.” His knack for intellectualizing is almost a sideshow to his playwrighting, where he steers clear of editorializing or characters communicating earnest righteous indignation.


Gasda has something to say, and to the benefit of the audience, he’s done a good job of mapping out the most irreverent and engaging way to tell it. It’s like when you’re young and at a campfire, and some older kid is regaling you with tales of conquests, haunted places and people, and connections they had to the famous. You can’t help but be pulled in by their sense of authority. At a time when so much of our entertainment goes through a Brita filter, it’s refreshing to watch a creative work without platitudes or moralizing. His work is exciting because it’s a simulation of a scene-y party. Playwrights, in his universe, can be a kind of social DJ, spinning inane conversations that you’ve heard out on the town. Love him or hate him, he’s getting downtown kids to cosplay as the theatre kids they used to bully.

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