Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull begins with a play within the play. Inside a stylish mansion, decorative window curtains are replaced with dramatic, red theater drapes. A large mirror — at least 10 feet in length — is centered on the wall behind with curtains. A group of onlookers, at least six of them, wander around the perimeter. All the while, an exasperated Celine Song frantically clicks on the couches: “Sit together!”
Song, the Canadian playwright who wrote Endlings, is putting on an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull using The Sims 4 as a stage. The play, called The Seagull on The Sims 4, was broadcast live on Twitch Tuesday and Wednesday night. She’s calling the project “a durational installation art piece,” using both a familiar, classic text and a ubiquitous life simulation game.
Song “cast” the actors ahead of the play, or rather designed them in the game, live on Twitch. With help from an audience of more than 600 viewers, she assigned them clothing and personality traits. These “actors” had to play The Seagull’s characters, like Constantine Treplieff, the creative and driven playwright who Song called “the original incel,” and Masha, the emo goth girl — wearing a studded jacket — who’d rather be alone.
And so, the Sim playing Nina stood alone on the stage, reciting the dramatic monologue in Constantine’s play in front of an audience that could not sit still. Song — again, controlling the Sims, mashed buttons to keep the group of onlookers engaged, but it ended up being no use. Sims, of course, operate with “free will,” meaning that if they have a different need to be fulfilled — say, they’re hungry or need to pee — they’ll do that, rather than what they’re commanded to do by the player.
That makes creating a live production, where the Sims (as actors) should follow the player’s every move, much more chaotic. But it also helps reimagine this classic text in a way that’s both profound and hilarious.
Song’s adaptation of The Seagull on The Sims 4 is part of the New York Theatre Workshop’s Artistic Instigators program, which was started during the pandemic to support artists while in-person performances were halted. The goal is for these artists to create experiences and installations within the boundaries of the current moment — to redefine what’s possible in these spaces when so much just isn’t possible.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a shift to online worlds, as people looked to connect in physically distanced ways. Pandemic birthday parties and celebrations were held in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with deaths mourned there, too. Other events, like political rallies, are largely unsafe — large gatherings of people are to be avoided — so politicians, too, are looking to digital venues for their events. Rather than appearing in-person in a physical space, U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez livestreamed Among Us to encourage young people to vote. Perhaps it’s an event that could have been held — in another, safer time — as an in-person event. But would have it been as successful?
With theaters closed during the pandemic, artists and playwrights are seeking out new venues for performance, too. That means that these artists can also reach a wider audience for an individual performance. And, in the case of Song’s project, Twitch feels like a natural fit.
For many seasoned gamers and Twitch viewers, Song’s stream might not look very different from other livestreams; she’s got The Sims 4 up on most of the screen, with Twitch chat comments overlaid in the corner, a webcam focused on her face. But Song’s framing of this performance as theater — especially the melodrama of a Chekhov play — and playing with this particular story in mind changes how the gameplay is perceived.
Part of that is because Song’s online theater is interactive in a way that in-person theater can’t be. Throughout the play, which took place over two nights, viewers on Twitch could talk to the director in real-time, helping her make decisions and offering commentary. The experience also included some hand-shaking between longtime Twitch users and theater fans. On the first night, the stream went down for a moment. In typical Twitch fashion, some users started spamming “F” in chat, which confused the new-to-Twitch theater viewers — until someone finally explained the meme to them.
“The Sims is a very interesting video game, because it attempts to simulate human life as it exists, the mundanity and all,” Song told Polygon. “In The Sims, we as players are both Gods and voyeurs. That seemed to closely resemble the experience of writing and watching a play as a playwright, but without the living, breathing humans as the actors.
“When I thought about adapting a classic play to be performed within a video game, The Sims seemed like a natural choice. Twitch is how millions of people experience live content around the world, and it’s the primary platform I use as a consumer of video game content — so that’s why I decided to stream there.”
Twitch streaming lends itself naturally to that sort of engagement; it’s why people keep coming back to the platform and their favorite streamers. But even before Twitch, artists were using online spaces and games for art and engagement.
In the early days of the internet, when we were still on dial-up modems, artists Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis began performing in public spaces of The Palace, a 2D visual chat space populated with emoji-like avatars and digital paper dolls. Jenik told Polygon that The Palace was a space of anticipation — people waiting for something to happen. Jenik and Brenneis, going by the Desktop Theater moniker, entered different spaces on The Palace and held impromptu plays, the first of which was an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (Desktop Theater called their adaptation waitingforgodot.com.)
Others, too, have created online theater communities in unlikely places, putting on stage plays in virtual spaces like MMOs Final Fantasy 14 and World of Warcraft, and using video game characters like puppets in live stage events.
Jenik said she was drawn to visual chat rooms at the time because it already was a performative space. “It was already a place of theatricality, even if they weren’t intentionally performing,” she said. “We felt comfortable going in with our intentional performance with it because it always seemed like it was a place — and many of these places still seem like that — where people were wanting for something to happen.”
This can be applied to video game streaming, too: Though a live streamer isn’t necessarily playing a character, there are performative aspects to it. Of course, there are some livestreamers who do play a character, or at least adopt a persona when streaming. The appeal of many livestreams, though, is that the streamer is presenting an authentic, relatable version of themselves, someone with whom the viewer feels comfortable sharing a digital space. In fact, that’s explicitly why people enjoy watching high-profile figures like Ocasio-Cortez on sites like these. As Polygon’s Patricia Hernandez wrote last week, it’s a mixture of political landscape with the idea of parasocial relationships — one-sided friendships that feel real. This isn’t to say that Ocasio-Cortez or others are faking their relationships to fans while live streaming on Twitch, just that these are versions of themselves that are knowingly being projected into the public.
Jenik said that, back in the early ’90s, people actually picketed one Desktop Theater performance, upset that they were calling their act theater. But a lot about online spaces and our perceptions about performance has changed since then. Even now, during the pandemic, it feels like communities that were previously unfamiliar with gaming and Twitch have a sense of urgency to better understand online spaces as legitimate in their fields — to see these spaces differently.
But the evolution (and corporatization) of technology means that online chat spaces and games have more limits on what’s possible, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the early days of The Palace. “It was freely offered, people could develop their own [spaces],” she said. “It was quite decentralized.” It’s a stark comparison to how much of the internet is now.
These limitations are a challenge that itself becomes a performance. There’s a real sense of adaptability and improv in Song’s The Seagull on The Sims 4. The limitations of the game — playing within publisher Electronic Arts’ ruleset — didn’t stifle creativity. They enabled it.