In 2010, the military lifted its ban on social media, allowing soldiers and the journalists embedded with them, to post tweets, Facebook messages, and Instagram photos from the front lines. During their first five months fighting in Afghanistan, the First Battalion, Eighth Marines Regiment took advantage of this new policy and, under the guidance of a seasoned freelance journalist, Teru Kuwayama, used the iPhone app Hipstamatic, to document their experience. The result, a work of social media reportage called Basetrack, won the 2010 Knight News Challenge. Now, their work has been turned into a multi-media theatrical performance, currently touring the country, that tells the story of one Marine’s experience in war and its aftermath.
“Basetrack was designed as a work of journalism, but I think the methods can be brought to a wider audience and a deeper level of meaning can be drawn from it, if it’s reorganized as a work of art,” says creator Ed Bilous, who founded and directs the Center for Innovation of the Arts at Juilliard. As the show’s adaptor, Jason Grote, explains, “The net result is less about sitting down for a play but using music, video and text to evoke the emotional realities of war.”
Basetrack moves from Afghanistan to Texas, following one couple as they struggle to resume their lives together. The story is about PTSD, marriage, fatherhood, and the the ways in which Marines carry their battles home. It’s a “real-life” story; the dialogue is wholly derived from interviews with the protagonists and the photographic images and video footage all depict actual people, places and events. But unlike a magazine feature or a documentary, Bilous says the narrative is held together less by its linear structure, than by a series of archetypal motifs, including tapestries, webs and the moon.
The tapestry archetype “represents the internet, a kind of web, where communication takes place,” explains Bilous. On stage, video projections of social media platforms will visually transform into carpets woven by Afghan civilians, or into the canvas tents and meshwork that surround the Marines’ encampment. Even the visual presentation of the internet–emails and Facebook posts– is displayed by text that is layered and intertwined. “It’s like optical fiber,” says Bilous. “When you see 30 or 50 or 100 [lines of text] overlapping, you see the chaotic residue of interaction between these people.”
The moon is used to demonstrate an emotional connection between the Marine and his wife, who gaze upon the same night sky, despite living worlds apart But the moon also represents lunacy–veterans’ battles with PTSD–or the war, which Bilous calls “an act of lunacy to begin with.” He adds that one of these Marines even had werewolves tattooed on his body.
Adapting journalism into this kind of artistic collage was tricky. Grote, who conducted many of the interviews from which the dialogue originates, collected 500 pages of transcribed text and had to boil it down to just a handful. “At its core, there’s a little bit of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl,” he says. “So the show has a sense of movement, but it’s not presented with a super rigid chronology.”
Then, then Bilous had to find the appropriate balance between all the other media platforms. “If you imagine a child making a collage out of colored paper, the large piece of paper would have been the thematic archetypes. Then we cut out other shapes–text, music, lighting, set design–and they interface with each other.” Most challenging, he says, was balancing sight and sounds. “In the battle between eye and the ear, the eye always wins,” he says. So as not to privilege the eye, Bilous and his wife, a composer, amped up the role of the music. It is, in fact, the only part of the show that is original and Bilous calls it the “crazy glue” that holds the production together. Stylistically, it includes real-time improvisation, electronica, classical and rock. Much of it triggers and manipulates the video projections.
Clearly, there’s an element of chaos and freneticism here. Basetrack is not the kind of neatly packaged theatrical production we’re used to. Viewers will decide whether the show’s myriad sensory elements and avenues of delivery overwhelm the basic human story at its core. But the net result may also be a chaos that mirrors the experience of war itself. Basetrack takes the 2-D experience of consuming reportage on the page and turns it into a 3-D, multi-sensory onslaught.
The production debuted in Austin September 11 and will play at BAM November 11-15.