How a multimedia whiz seized digital theater's big moment

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How a multimedia whiz seized digital theater's big moment
The projection designer Jared Mezzocchi at an undisclosed location, April 12, 2021. Mezzocchi has become a go-to guy for ambitious virtual productions. Next up: Starring in his own haunted house play. Greg Kahn/The New York Times.

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In March 2020, live venues closed, and the theater industry was shocked into numbness. But for multimedia designer and director Jared Mezzocchi, the moment felt like a ringing alarm.

Mezzocchi warmed up in early May by codirecting a livestreamed student production of the Qui Nguyen play “She Kills Monsters” at the University of Maryland, where he is associate professor of dance and theater design and production. The show made imaginative use of filters in Zoom. Who knew that you could generate creature features in an app conceived for office meetings?

Numerous projects of diverse sizes and genres followed, playing to strengths Mezzocchi had developed as a projection designer, the person making new images or fashioning existing footage to be shown onstage. He is comfortable in the digital realm, can create a visual environment to tell a story, and has the technical know-how to handle virtual live performances — he is a whiz with Isadora, a software that allows users to mix and edit Zoom on the spot.

Highlights have included Sarah Gancher’s acclaimed “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy,” which Mezzocchi directed with Elizabeth Williamson; video and web design for “The Manic Monologues”; and multimedia design and direction on Mélisande Short-Colomb’s recent “Here I Am.”

Next, Mezzocchi is starring in his own interactive virtual play, “Someone Else’s House,” which starts previews Friday at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

To be sure, Mezzocchi, 35, didn’t wait for March 2020 to get busy. In 2017, for example, he won Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for his projection design on the Manhattan Theater Club production of Nguyen’s “Vietgone.”

But his workload and influence have exploded over the past 13 months. Last September, he further extended his reach by creating the Virtual Design Collective (ViDCo), a think tank, networking hub and problem-solving resource (watch it in action during the live event “Word. Sound. Power. 2021” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday).

“He’s unafraid to ask bigger questions and push what’s really possible theatrically,” May Adrales, the “Vietgone” director, said over video.

“Someone Else’s House,” produced in association with ViDCo, is yet another experiment for Mezzocchi, who is stepping in front of the camera to recount a haunting story that happened to his family in their home state of New Hampshire.

“I’ve never seen myself as a tech person,” he said in an email. “Hell, I was an actor my whole childhood and through grad school. Multimedia became an extension of myself as a storyteller — not the other way around. So this is a really thrilling moment of convergence for me.”

Based in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mezzocchi maintains strong ties to New Hampshire: Since 2015, he has been the producing artistic director at Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton, which he attended as a kid and where he now implements many of his ideas about the interconnection of community, art and technology.

He discussed them and more in a pair of conversations conducted on — what else? — Zoom.

Q: Do you think the disappearance of live theater has changed the way we approach storytelling?

A: Without getting into better or worse, I think this period has allowed for more strategies to emerge. Think of TikTok or Snapchat: We hear words with visuals in a way that we weren’t 10 years ago — we’re now telling full stories with a series of memes online. The most successful works I’ve seen this year had technology as a scene partner, not as lipstick and blush. I hope that remains when we get back to in-person.

Q: Ideally, what should happen when in-person performances return?

A: First, everyone’s like, “I can’t wait for theater to be back.” I don’t want to nitpick, but I would love us to say: “I can’t wait for in-person theater to allow us to create story inside of a venue again.” People are making performance right now, and we need to embrace that. A lot of theaters are not going to stop the digital marketplace because they’ve seen great value in the accessibility to it. I’m excited for where that takes us when digital performance is a choice rather than survival.

Q: You were a video projectionist at the Manhattan nightclub Santos Party House for a few years starting in 2008. How did that influence your theater work?

I would spend hours making the perfect thing, and no one would care, and then I would put up a cat video and everyone would cheer! Learning pop culture, learning how to engage with an audience, how to listen to a DJ, how to engage with a band — it became much more musical to me. Sarah Gancher comes from a musical background, and on “Russian Troll Farm” we found ourselves talking about cadence, tempo, percussiveness. It’s not about, “This is what it’s going to look like,” but, “Here’s the energy we’re trying to generate.”

Q: In an essay for Howlround Theater Commons, you wrote that “theater must stop making films during the pandemic.” Ouch! Do you think being live defines theater?

A: Absolutely, and that’s unchangeable for me. You make different decisions when you have to make them in the moment, and I think it has to do with audience engagement. If an audience feels like it’s important that they’re there and listening, they’re going to listen differently. And if the performer knows there’s an audience listening in a particular way, it’s going to be different. Is it perfect? Totally not [laughs]. Digital technology’s value system, for whatever reason, is married to spectacle and a different kind of quality. I’ve noticed a lot of people running from liveness so they can get a higher spectacle at a higher quality. I’d rather be rough and dirty and maintain liveness.

Q: You often talk about community-building, which has included instituting talkbacks at Andy’s Summer Playhouse. Why is that important to you?

A: It’s important to leverage localism so that we can really understand communities. Right now the only way into a community is often a national tragedy, and that’s too late. How can art help? Well, there’s no tragedy involved when you’re creating something. I love Andy’s because it reminds people that debate is important, and that kids can and should lead a lot of conversations in local environments. They are the reminder that change is beautiful and necessary.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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