TOAP: Swarthmore’s Production Ensemble Goes Virtual

Marketed as a webinar aimed to change your life, I knew little of The Theater of All Possibilities prior to entering the show. Swarthmore’s website seemed intent on keeping me in the dark, describing TOAP as “a method, a community, and a way of life.” If you’re thinking this is a cult, you may be right. 

Swarthmore’s production ensemble (a class whose show traditionally takes place around Thanksgiving) was pushed to J-term, an intensive four-week course that meant this year’s cohort was working around the clock. Culminating in a three-day run at the very end of J-term classes, TOAP’s webinar went live four times from January 29th to 31st.        

After nearly a year of courses on Zoom, I have grown to see glitches like frozen faces or crackling voices as a completely normal aspect of being online. In a seminar class of fifteen people, where generally we would be sitting in a way that allows us to briefly look around and see everyone’s faces, Zoom simply mediates that situation. We all want to ignore the compartmentalization, the way our faces are stuck in a box in a single corner of our computer screen. In no way is Zoom ideal. That was not my experience with TOAP. 

“We see you. We see the fullness of your frequency. And we are sensing the radiance of your aura.’’ I was greeted by these words alone. There was a logo in the bottom left corner, the rest of the screen shifting and breathing like a visual representation of the frequency the disembodied voice told me it sees. 

“We see you here at the Where It Is, with us, right now traveling through space and time together in a kind of in-between lobby. Where all things are possible.” Alright, so I was in a lobby (a kind of in-between lobby.) It had only been a minute and I’d already forgotten why exactly I was there. This was a webinar and I was waiting in a lobby while someone told me about the Where It Is and space and time. Minutes passed and I heard a similar idea repeated. TOAP was about auras and frequencies and the sprawling expanse of space where anything is possible. Was I being promised something?  

The screen shifted and Aurora Bee (costumer designer Laila Swanson) appeared, wearing a black turtleneck sweater and a black bob. Her glasses reflected light from the computer screen, preventing eye contact. Aurora Bee’s appearance was especially jarring due to the sudden transition from a soothing voice to energetic music. What followed was a music video performed by people who I can only assume were TOAPians, many of them donning the same dress as Aurora Bee, black bob-cut and all. Flashing lights and a multitude of faces made up most of the video, compounded by several voices repeating, “Light, Energy, Sound, this is how we start to heal.” Even as I sat alone in my room, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the combination of synthesizers and overlaid visuals.     

I was introduced to four TOAPians — Neverland (Marie Inniss ’23), Glitter (Jacquiline Acunto ’23), Mystic (Fouad Dakwar ’22), and StarBaby!!! (Nya Kuziwa ’22). Besides their face and shoulders, each of their screens contained the galaxy and TOAP’s logo, an appropriate mix of the otherworldly and their brand. Going through a slide-show of odd philosophical beliefs and Oscar winners, each member smiled as they described what TOAP would do for you. 

What appeared to be surface-level mysticism was punctuated by disenchanted dialogue, giving the audience a quick glimpse into the characters the actors had created over J-term. Several simultaneous conversations took place, the characters utilizing Zoom’s features, speaking out loud to each other as well as over the public chat.   

“Tell me a little bit about some sacrifices you’ve made for TOAP, and why they are completely worth it!” Neverland asked StarBaby!!! 

With cautious optimism, StarBaby!!! answered: “In order to become a better actor, rainboab prescribed to me an all-liquid diet, which has ravaged my insides!” I can’t help but transcribe each line with an exclamation point, the only fitting punctuation for each TOAPian. 

About halfway through the webinar, the careful, dreamy atmosphere began to crumble, starting with a sudden break from the slide-show. The audience was shown emails from concerned family members and friends; particularly important lines in  each message were underlined. 

“You’ve … joined a cult?” one email asked. “You’ve missed the last seven family Zooms because you were busy ‘connecting magical frequencies,’” another wrote. The emails moved faster as voicemails began to play, the voices of family members blurring in a way reminiscent of the opening song. No longer light, energy, and sound, but “we miss you.” “We’re worried about you.” 

What followed was an intervention of sorts — two former members of TOAP, Maria/Dragonfruit (Raya Tuffaha ’23) and Alice/Poppet (Nooria Ahmed ’22), appearing alongside our original four. What distinguished them was a lack of a starry background, Maria and Alice grounded in their bedrooms. The final part of the now-hacked webinar told the story of Alice, who was suffering from health problems that rainboab dismissed. Maria and Alice tried to talk sense into the other members of the cult, reminding them of their families that they’ve been isolated from. But on the other side, the current cult members spoke of their sense of community, their ability to start anew, their sacrifices, and their growing confidence. Their loyalty shone through, stemming from an obvious loneliness that led them to TOAP in the first place. 

“All we have is each other,” Neverland said. “And if you two leave, what will you have left?”   

The most engaging part of the show was the way in which the world of the cult extended beyond the boundaries of the webinar. In fact, the webinar was more a culmination of a much broader story. 

Because of J-term’s condensed schedule, the subject of this year’s performance had to be decided on beforehand. Director Elizabeth Stevens (our cult leader rainboab and disembodied voice) realized early on that something completely new was needed for a Zoom production. “I just couldn’t imagine trying to pick up, you know, do a play that was written to be done in a real way, and just neuter it. Just tame it completely. Just cut away all this awesome wild stuff in it, and make it a thing that can happen in boxes,” she said.

Instead, she landed on a cult. 

Throughout J-term, students worked on character development, crafting backstories and personalities that would ultimately form the storyline of the webinar. Aiming to make this production fun and playful, Stevens stressed the importance of integrating actors’ own interests into the making of each character to bring them to life. “It was definitely nothing like a normal theatre experience because of how limited we were in movement (has to be in the Zoom frame), so we spent a lot of time on character work and improvising,” Acunto (Glitter) wrote.  

Much of the cult can be found on their website, theaterofallpossibilities. Welcoming you with a bright vortex of colors and the text, BRINGING TOGETHER THE COMPLEXITY OF THEATER WITH THE SIMPLICITY OF THE UNIVERSE, TOAP’s website immediately assaults the senses, much like their webinar. Exploring the website reveals each character further through blog posts and videos, carefully setting up a fragile disillusionment with rainboab’s teachings of Light, Energy, and Sound. 

“All that work we did on the website before we did the script was in a way preparation for the script,” Stevens said about the writing, which the cast completed less than a week before the actual show. “That’s kind of the secret work that you don’t see people do in a show. In this case, it was awesome because we can make it visible and part of the show.” 

The actual live performance was unlike anything most of the cast had ever done. 

“It was definitely really strange doing the show via Zoom. I’ve done a lot of pandemic art that was definitely unconventional, but none of them used Zoom the way TOAP did,” Inniss (Neverland) said. 

Stevens was not a huge fan of that unconventionality. Unlike a traditional performance, the context around TOAP’s webinar was lost. “When you go to see something there is a period of time where you go to get there, and you walk across campus, or you get in your car or decide what you’re going to wear. You’re going to be seen in some way.” Like any Zoom event, all one must do is click on the link. “There is no drama around it, there was no event.” 

Although some of the standard nerves seemed absent, the webinar was still a live performance with an audience, albeit virtual. Many of the cast members sat in their rooms with their overhead lights off, sitting at a desk with something like a spot-light to reveal their face. They could not see any participants of the Zoom meeting besides those in the cast, but the online format allowed for the story of the cult to be hacked by another narrative, this time led by Alice and Marie.    

Ultimately, the story was riveting, especially because of the peculiar voyeurism of my position in the audience. In the world of TOAP I was just an attendee for their webinar, but by the end it was like I had witnessed a private phone-call, all while the characters knew I was watching, even if they became wrapped up in defending the cult. The characters poignantly expressed two sides of their cultish community. On one, Maria and Alice asked the others to leave, while the rest reminded each of life before TOAP, the familial bond they have now, and their renewed sense of purpose.   

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