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Director Rick Sebastian provides insights into ‘The Nether’

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Sebastian 2Director Rick Sebastian is no stranger to directing. He studied acting and directing at Florida Atlantic University in 1988, where he had the privilege of working with Zoe Caldwell and her husband, Robert Whitehead, and in just the last two years he has directed Steve Martin’s comedy hit, The Underpants, for Lab Theater and Betrayal (starring James Recca, Patti Ford and Greg Sofranco) for Theatre Conspiracy. But he’s never been as enthused about a directing project as he is about Jennifer Haley’s The Nether.

“What Haley has done in this play is create a world 35 years into the future where person-to-person, face-to-face contact is a thing of the past and people interact with the world exclusively through their devices,” Sebastian explains almost breathless at the very thought of it. But everyone from sociologists to psychotherapists are already sounding the clarion bell of alarm that in spite of being increasingly connected to each other through social media, we are actually becoming more isolated, more disconnected and increasingly incapable of meaningful contact with one another.

According to Bloomberg, cell phone subscribers sent 8 trillion text messages in 2015. “Our data reveals that most Americans would rather send a text than make a call,” points out Informate Mobile Intelligence CEO Will Hodgman. “The average American makes or answers six phone calls per day, sends and receives 32 texts, and spends 14 minutes on chat/VOIP. Our report finds that smartphone users in the U.S. are spending about 26 minutes a day texting. In 75 percent of the other countries we measured, it’s less than five minutes.”

“In other words, most of us spend our days walking around with our noses buried in our cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPhones, etc.,” writes CNN correspondent Jack Cafferty. “And while we’re doing that, we’re tuning out the people who are actually in the same room as us. We seem to have long ago crossed the line as to where doing this stuff is appropriate – people take calls while they’re out to dinner, text or check e-mail while on a date, you name it.”

Now, fast forward 35 years into the future, where a man named Sims has created an online world where people can do anything they want without consequences. “The Nether refers to this virtual world,” explains Sebastian. “But the nether was also part of the underworld, and the world that Sims creates has this dark, sinister underbelly.”

Sims calls his virtual world The Hideaway. It has trees, fabric, fruit and other products made from plants and animals that no longer exist in the ecologically-ravaged real world. “And The Hideaway is sensory-enabled. Visitors can not only see the objects that exist in this virtual world. They can smell, touch and feel them as if they’re in the room with you. Think of a New Age, electronic Betsy McCall paper doll or Dungeons & Dragons, where you create your own world.”

Clearly, the present-day relevancy of Jennifer Haley’s construct excites Sebastian and is sure to resonate with Theatre Conspiracy audiences from Millennials to Baby Boomers. But the challenge of staging the futuristic world of The Nether also gets Sebastian’s creative juices flowing.

“How do you stage what the world will look like 35 years from now?” Sebastian asks rhetorically. “Take costuming. How do we have our actors dress? What kind of fashions will people wear? What colors will be popular then? What kind of fabric will manufacturers use?” How will our PCs, monitors, smart phones and other devices be styled and operate? Think back to the Star Trek tricorder in comparison to the modern-day smart phone and you’ll have an inkling of the challenge that Sebastian and Artistic Director Bill Taylor faced when they decided to bring The Nether to life on the Foulds Theater stage.

Sebastian is also excited because he’s put together a talented cast for this production and he foresees strong performances by all five actors. Jim Yarnes plays Sims. Beth Yasvac plays a police interrogator by the name of Morris who is investigating Sims and one of the Hideaway’s clients, a man by the name of Doyle, played by Elvis Mortley. A middle-aged science teacher, Doyle is accused of indulging his penchant for nubile young girls in The Hideaway. The 9-year-old virtual girl who is the object of his desire is Iris, played by Erin Fisk. And to help get the goods on Sims and Doyle, Morris sends an agent into the nether by the name of Woodnut, played by Tom March.

But given the adult content and language, casting for the part of Iris required a great deal of care and forethought. After all, the subject of pedophilia is front and center in this play. “Haley uses a worst-case scenario to make her point about the virtual world see forecasts in our not-too-distant future,” says Sebastian. “Just log in, choose an identity and indulge your every desire. But because of the script’s mature language and content and the physicality involved in the play, Bill [Taylor] and I decided we did not want to use an actual child. But it was not easy to find someone who was small enough in stature to appear as if she were nine but could act. And even after we settled on Erin, we insisted on consulting her parents before we awarded her the part.”

Although audiences everywhere respond to the play’s more prurient content, Sebastian hopes the Theatre Conspiracy audiences won’t lose sight of the fact that the play is really about the growing lack of care we take when it comes to communication in our own interpersonal relationships, with a subtext in ecological responsibility and conservation. The Nether opens on March 4 in the Foulds Theater at the Allliance for the Arts. Click here for play dates, times and ticket information.

Click here for more on Rick Sebastian.

Click here for more on playwright Jennifery Haley.

Click here for a synopsis of the plot.

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