“Error 404” opens on a dark stage.
Actors’ faces appear in the dark, lit up only by the light of iPhones and laptops the actors are using. Three projector screens display the contents of their cellphones and computers, filled with messages such as “OMG did she see the photo?!?!?!!!”
Last weekend, the Andover Theatre Project presented its first production, “Error 404,” the culmination of a term-long endeavor to create and stage an original play.
The Andover Theatre Project is an experimental, alternative athletic program, started by Eliana Kwartler ’12 and Andrew Schlager ’12. Without a faculty director, Andover Theatre Project students write, direct, act and produce their own theatre productions.
“Error 404” was produced in lieu of a winter term Theatre 520 production and was written and directed by Susannah Hyde ’13 and Schlager. Students auditioned for the show during the fall term and worked daily through winter term to develop “Error 404.”
“Everything we wrote was a direct response to the actors, which is rare when you’re writing a play because it’s generally the other way around—the actors are [usually] responding to the writing,” said Schlager.
“The Theatre Department was devoid of a place where people could kind of play around and figure out the creative process and really have time to try different things. Most of the stuff in the Theatre is very product driven. From a Drama Lab, to Theatre 520, it’s always rushed to get it done. We wanted a place where it wasn’t as much about the final product as it was about the process,” Kwartler.
Innovative in its production process, “Error 404” used technology to enrich the audience’s understanding of the characters, an approach not commonly seen in conventional theater productions.
Actors sat along the edge of the stage observing and judging the characters and sending text messages among themselves. They also explored the detailed fictional Facebook pages of the characters.
The plot begins with a Skype conversation between protagonist Michelle Baker, played by Jackie Murray ’13, and antagonist Olivia Hammer, played by Kwartler. Olivia informs Michelle that the nude photo Michelle sent to her boyfriend has been leaked to the school via text message. Shaken and feeling betrayed by her ex-boyfriend, Tyler Henderson, played by Ben Romero ’12, Michelle sets out to find and stop the circulation of the naked picture.
Murray said, “My character [Michelle] is a girl who desperately wants to be liked and just likes other people. Eliana’s character, Olivia, is an incredibly ambitious, self-proclaimed ‘cold-hearted bitch.’”
After Michelle sabotages Tyler’s attempts to flirt with Carolyn von Klempnerer, played by Caroline von Klemperer ’12, Tyler confesses that he sent the picture while they were still dating to his roommate. Michelle discovers that Tyler’s roommate had dated Olivia and suspects it was Olivia who sent the picture out to others. She sabotages Olivia’s essay intended for the prestigious Scott Jamison Award. The English teaching fellow David Bowie, played by David Tylinski ’12, then confronts Olivia.
Michelle resolves to hack into Olivia’s email account to get further revenge. She coerces the conflicted computer lab technician, played by Adam Brody ’14, into letting her on the account. On Olivia’s email, Michelle finds an acceptance letter from Harvard University, Olivia’s first and only college choice. Obliterating Olivia’s future, Michelle declines the offer from Olivia’s e-mail account.
Michelle confronts Olivia in a final scene. Michelle accuses Olivia, screaming and calling her a “complete bitch.”
Olivia denies having anything to do with the picture, defending herself by saying, “At least I know what people call me. At least I know what people say behind my back. You were walking around this campus and people were laughing at you and talking shit about you and you had no idea.”
Olivia claims that she reached out to Michelle because she had felt bad. Realizing her mistake, Michelle tells Olivia that she declined her acceptance to Harvard. Olivia explodes at Michelle, who is instantly apologetic and regretful. Olivia accuses her of destroying her future, and leaves Michelle with a choice: “Turn yourself in, or I will.”
The play ends with a final twist as Olivia makes a last phone call to someone revealing that there had never been a picture in the first place.
Apart from the main characters, highlight performances in “Error 404” included Vincent Mocco ’14, who played Tommy Baker, Michelle’s well-intentioned little brother, Elizabeth Oppong ’12, playing Michelle’s controlling but distant and removed mother, and Tylinski, playing David Bowie, a creepy English teaching fellow.
Mocco said, “[Tommy] tries to do whatever [he] can to protect [his] big sister [Michelle] but then she shoots [him] down in trying to get rid of the photo.”
Tylinski said, “Apparently a lot of people thought that I was David Bowie. But I was just playing someone whose name just happened to be David Bowie, which caused a bit of confusion. I’m just a washed up dude who wishes he had become a 70s glam rock sensation.”
Accentuated by the craftily interwoven use of technology, “Error 404” managed to develop a realistic, multi-faceted plot, exploring the risks of technology and touching on social problems that students face today.
“We wanted there to be a lot going on at the same time to show that there’s always something going on on phones and the Internet,” said Brody.
Kwartler emphasized that the production of the play was student-driven.
“We had a big group meeting where we had pizza and cookies and we just talked for like two hours and threw out all these different ideas,” she said.
Schlager and Hyde rewrote the play multiple times in order to accommodate all of the actors. Kwartler said that they initially planned to finish the script by the second week of winter term, but the group ran into complications in writing and acting.
“We would write significant amounts of material and we’d come in and we’d have people read it and generally what would happen was they couldn’t act what we would write. So we would rewrite it,” said Schlager.
“Part of the process was just figuring out the process. We were changing the way we did things as we went,” Kwartler said.
“We would have an idea for a scene and people in the scene would do an hour-long improv where they would keep doing the scene over and over again. We outlined just what they had to get to and Susannah [Hyde] would just type everything we said, and she would go and type up the best thing that was said that day and craft it into a scene,” Kwartler continued.
“The story changed significantly and it was changed late at night. But I think that’s the way you do it. I think that plays are generally written in either incredibly short periods or incredibly long periods. Like [the first draft of] ‘Death of a Salesman’ was written in three days. But you can also look at something like ‘Adaptation,’ which took years and years and years to write,” said Schlager.
“Error 404” was set to open on the last Friday of winter term, but the performance was delayed until this past weekend.
Kwartler said, “When we got to two weeks before it was supposed to be opening night, we just realized that we weren’t ready. That was a big moment for the group.
“We just came together and had this long talk about what was working and what wasn’t working. Everyone just got all their angst and problems out on the table, and from then on [the process] was much smoother because we had open lines of communication, and we seemed to be working towards this common goal, whereas before people seemed to be stuck in their own winter term problems,” said Kwartler.
“We all sort of helped pitch in to create the show. Not necessarily writing it, but creating the ideas. It ended up being a little bit chaotic because the show changed a lot from the beginning. The show we ended up having was actually completely different from the show we had three months ago,” said Tylinski.
“This final thing that we ended on worked very, very well. It’s hard to write and put on a show as high-schoolers. But as hard as it’s been, it’s been absolutely wonderful and the plot really ended up as something special,” said Murray.