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Theatre New Brunswick embraces cell phones in upcoming performance

Theatre New Brunswick’s 2015-16 season will continue with the premiere of Returning Fire.

The play runs from Feb. 4 to 7 in downtown Fredericton. It was written by Fredericton playwright Ryan Griffith and commissioned by TNB.

“He wrote it specifically for us, which is a neat feeling,” TNB artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones said.

The play features Ian Goff and Jalianne Li. Jones said it tells the story of a soldier’s return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The soldier tries to reconnect with a long-time friend after eight years who now works for an arts board in Saskatchewan.

“The friend who works for an arts board is in town for a conference, and she reached out to her old friend, who used to be her best friend in university,” he said. “She said, ‘Hey, do you want to catch up?’ and wanted to see if they could renew their friendship where eight years’ of life experience made them different people and they grew apart.”

The play depicts an example of a life that’s been touched by post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Jones cited a recent article stating that one in 10 soldiers returning from active duty live with PTSD or other operational stress injuries.

“That’s a significant statistic,” he said. “Whether it’s mental illness in general or it’s linked to service people’s experience, it’s important to talk about it.”

While the play isn’t all about mental illness, Jones said, a huge part of it is that character’s experience.

“It’s beautiful the way Ryan has done it,” he said. “He’s done such incredible research, and it gives us a human showcasing of what PTSD does to someone who has served in the military and what it does to people around them when they come home.”

Unlike typical plays, Jones said, Returning Fire begins outside of a traditional theatre setting.

When tickets are purchased, audience members will be asked to provide their cell phone numbers. The characters will then start texting each other three and a half hours before the shows start.

The characters’ correspondence will continue, and at some point, the audience will find out the venue.

For that reason, Jones said, he couldn’t reveal the exact location of the shows. However, he did say it will be at a bar or restaurant on Queen Street.

“It’s this really cool play that starts on your phone and eventually ends up in a live theatre setting,” he said. “It’s an interesting way of challenging our notions of what theatre is and how we experience live events.”

Jones said society’s increased dependence on technology inspired him to use it to engage people in a theatrical event. He said some Broadway theatres have noticed many audience members tweeting about plays during the show and have created special sections where they can do just that.

“It seems a bit mad that we can’t be without our technology long enough to sit through a two-hour play,” said Jones. “But we decided to embrace it and interact with people through their phones. Then when the play starts, you’ll have no interest in being on your phone because you’ll be so interested in who these characters might be in real life.”

Tickets are available at The Playhouse. Text messaging will begin at 4 p.m. for evening shows at 7:30 p.m., and at 10:30 a.m. for the 2 p.m. matinees.

Evening shows are set for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

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