theater review

The Best Online Staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull Is in The Sims. Really.

Simgulls. Photo: Helen Shaw

“We must have new forms,” says Konstantin, the tormented writer hero of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Desperate for approval, Konstantin (Kostya to his friends) boils with “guy from my MFA” energy. He’s sure he’s underappreciated, though his aesthetic revolution sounds a lot like unoriginal dreck. You can see him, can’t you? Glasses, a little beard, a T-shirt with a skull on it?

At least that was the Konstantin collaboratively assembled in Celine Song’s (actually revolutionary) The Seagull on The Sims 4. One of the offerings from New York Theatre Workshop’s virtual season, Song’s two-night, nearly six-hour Seagull was head and wings above other experiments in digital theater. It was often deeply absorbing, if in its second half occasionally exhausting. At every moment, though, it felt like a brand-new genre, confident and fully formed at birth. (It is still available to watch on Song’s Twitch page. More than 9,500 people have watched Song’s stream — not live, of course, but since it’s been archived. That is the equivalent of selling out New York Theatre Workshop 48 times — exactly a six-week run. I find that so tidy and satisfying, that a theater piece for theater folk had roughly a theater-size audience, accordioned into online space and time.)

Instead of adapting Chekhov’s 1895 play for actors, Song remade it for the video game’s AI-driven avatars. Chekhov was one of the all-time greats at creating realistic texture, the illusion of expansive and “lived” time inside the compression of a plot. Song’s simple proposition is that a simulated life game like The Sims can build a Chekhovian world too, as long as she sets it up correctly. (People have been building sophisticated cinematic videos in The Sims for years, but most machinima is rigorously scripted, edited, and controlled — this was live, with the Sims operating as improvisers, as if they were actors in a devised theatrical work.)

In The Sims 4, the player chooses each Sim’s looks, traits, and aspirations, but the avatars also have in-built needs: Their energy dwindles as they need sleep or food or the toilet. Will your Sims argue? Forget to eat? Fall in love and make, in Sim-parlance, WooHoo? As long as “free will” is turned on in the settings, nothing’s certain. Recognizable rhythms of life emerge from this interplay of physical needs, emotional predispositions, and a mischief-making player at the controls. Even apart from its various artistic pleasures, the experience was a master class. During the show, Song occasionally had playwright friends call in, so we heard major writers like Jeremy O. Harris and C.A. Johnson talking about their own processes. Some loved The Sims itself, calling it as a refuge or a sandbox; Harris actually employs it as a tool when he hits writer’s block. Half an hour in, I thought: Every theater syllabus in the country needs this game.

But maybe MFA programs will be leery. Song was also upending the notion of Playwright As Authority. As she streamed live on Twitch, hundreds of people chimed in via the chat. During the setup process, Song used a random character generator, which gave the avatars a bit of that “whoever walked into the audition room” quality, and she scrolled through options till a body caught her and the chat room’s fancy. She tweaked features like hair or gait or costume as we kibitzed. The chat was full of dramaturges and Chekhov superfans; nearly everyone participating seemed to know the play to its bones. This led to approximately a million “Chekhov’s gun” jokes, okay LOL whatever. But there was also a real thrill at the perceptible flocking effect, as the crowd coalesced around choices. Yes! Of course Konstantin’s icy mother Irina should have an Ivana updo! How had we never thought of it before? Discovery followed discovery.

Song’s extended “casting” period was the deepest investment I’ve experienced yet in remote theater. That hour thrummed like a theatrical probability engine: Each proposed haircut or aspiration opened up a multiverse of Seagulls. At first, she showed us a Konstantin with a confident stride, and the play shifted to accommodate it — maybe Kostya’s writing is actually wonderful, I thought. Then swiftly she clicked through to a slumpier walk, and a less competent Konstantin came into focus. Either version gave you a fascinating Seagull; each changing detail unlocked valid readings of the play. Song spoke casually about how she saw various relationships in the story, tossing us whole lectures worth of insight as she clicked and laughed. We were giddy.

Once the characters were turned loose in The Sims’ virtual environment, Song nudged them toward the events in Chekhov’s plot. She treated the whole event with cheery ease — she read us a few words to keep in mind like “work in progress,” but the show felt as though it had already reached its best and final form. The chill oh-we’re-just-experimenting-here curtain lifted a little to reveal her preparation — she’d purchased a seagull mod from a designer, for instance, and she’d worked out how to stage Konstantin’s play-within-a-play. She kept consulting us, though, inviting us into many of her decisions, including what to call the sad books Konstantin wrote while sulking in his room. (He gave them away as creepy love tokens. That’s our Kostya!) Song used a cheat code to give her group splendid wealth, so the characters didn’t need to work for the mansion they lived in — a tidy analog for 19th-century Russian aristocracy. Beyond that initial choice, though, what was and wasn’t in her power seemed to change every minute: She could set up romantic dates, or summon the group to watch a little performance, but unprompted interactions could also be shockingly Seagull-esque. The Sims are their own improv troupe, throwing their own contributions into the mix, and it felt as if they had read the play too. The performance attendees were a pain to corral, just as they are in the original’s Act I. Sim Masha and Sim Trigorin had a spontaneous conversation “about old times,” at just the same moment that they do in the play. The taxidermied seagulls in Konstantin’s room kept glitching, flashing in and out as the character’s mental state deteriorated. Chekhov was in the code, laughing.

These happy collisions weren’t the only reason Seagull worked so well in this creatively devolved adaptation. It’s a play that deals with the perils of the artistic ego, and so it’s philosophically appropriate that we shared the burden with Song. If you count the game’s developers, and you must, thousands of people built this show. It’s also a play that shifts as you watch it over a lifetime: When you’re young, you see yourself in Konstantin and Nina; when you’re in your swaggering 30s, you buckle on your boots and root for Masha; when you’re old, you get realistic and embarrassed enough to recognize yourself in Irina and Sorin. The Sims version eases you back from identifying with specific characters and asks you instead to identify with their maker — the puzzled and gentle God on her headset, nudging her people toward cooking or dancing or death. Chekhov’s own humanism is in that attitude of detached kindness. Song conveyed it beautifully.

I kept trying to work out why the show, which was often extremely goofy, succeeded so much at enveloping me, in a way that other interactive and virtually “immersive” shows have not. I think Song’s game-play/play-game managed the trick by capturing the experience not of going to a show but of working on one. At her urging, viewers brought the quality of attention that comes with collaboration, and that felt like a churning motor under everything, trying to propel the show into being. It also meant that Song could draw on not just her own deep knowledge of the play, but the group’s, which amounted to thousands of hours of thinking, all of distilling generations of scholarship and criticism and production knowledge. Our long familiarity with the text presented itself as jokes in the chat about Masha’s outfit, but all that super-dense knowledge has a gravity too. And finally, it alleviates this awful season’s loneliness to think of the million minds that have pored over this same play for 125 years. We’re living in a moment when people are asking why we revive the old stuff, and what value we find in the canon. The Seagull on The Sims 4 has an answer.

The Best Online Staging of The Seagull Is in The Sims