George Orwell’s 1984 is classified as science fiction, although–as is the case with a lot of early sci-fi–much of what he imagined is quite possible today. However, this adaptation is limited by its age (it was written in the 1950s) as to what can be portrayed onstage. Our question from the start, therefore, was how we might incorporate contemporary technology in order to tell the story in a way which is more like what Orwell described, without contradicting anything actually in the script.
Orwell’s imagination conceived of a device he called a “telescreen” which is present in every Party member’s home, and in all public spaces in the city—inside and outside. On the screen would be broadcast news items, propaganda, and various daily events such as the Two Minutes’ Hate. The inhabitants of Orwell’s world know that the telescreen is a two-way communication device through which their own movements and words can be observed. There is truly no privacy in this world.
In our stage adaptation, the playwrights call for posters of Big Brother to stand in for the telescreens, which appear in most scenes. Actors are to pretend to adjust “knobs” on the “screen,” and voices would come from the screen at times, but there would be no image except the poster. When the screen was “on” the poster would be lit. When it was turned off, the light would go out.
This is a very simple effect to achieve, but since the technology of 2014 is rather more sophisticated, we wanted to create something more like a real telescreen. In order to project moving images on a screen so that the audience can see them easily, we need to use a large screen mounted on the rear wall of the stage. Obviously this makes it awkward for the actors to look at the screen, since it requires turning their backs to the audience. It also would seem to require that every telescreen be in the same position, since we cannot continually reposition our screen and the projector in the booth.
We solved this by choosing to have the telescreen always on the “fourth wall” of the stage…in other words the actors will always look out at the audience whenever they are supposed to be looking at a telescreen. It will be apparent in context that sometimes the screen is larger (as in the opening sequence in the Ministry of Truth), and sometimes smaller, like a personal television, as in Winston’s apartment. The audience will come to understand that the images being projected on the rear wall are always what the actors are seeing when they are “looking” at the telescreen which is on the fourth wall.
That solution to a technical problem actually created another: if the telescreen were to be established as a means of broadcasting moving images (as it is in the book), then whenever the telescreen is on, something has to be happening on it. We don’t have the luxury of just relying on the still image of Big Brother and a lights-on/lights-off approach to when the telescreen is active. Although you will see a variety of video and still images on the screen, we have chosen to have primarily still images projected, in order to not distract from the scene being acted onstage.
We owe a large debt of thanks to the work of our videographer, Brent Kuster, and of our four actors (Gabe Schneider, Christine Newman-Aumiller, Andy Canaveral and Scott Klaus) who only appear on the telescreen. These four have faithfully attended rehearsals so that the onstage actors can react to their voices and actions.
Another bit of technology omitted in this play is the “memory hole“–the means of disposing of all waste paper, including all documents to be destroyed in the course of their work. It is described in the book as “a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating.” Anything placed in one of these would “be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”
The playwrights substituted wastepaper baskets as being more practical, although there are several mentions of papers being incinerated. This however, does not visually portray the finality of destroying the past which the book described. Therefore, we have added the visual appearance of one of these “memory holes” in the first scene. Syme and Winston both use it, although it is not commented on directly.