Asking Strangers

Cast members rehearse for the University of Wyoming Department of Theatre and Dance production “Asking Strangers the Meaning of Life.” Playwright William Missouri Downs wrote the play to be performed on Zoom.

In an era marked by the migration of any and all in-person meetings to online platforms, the University of Wyoming is set to present a new comedy written deliberately for performance on Zoom.

“Asking Strangers the Meaning of Life” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24-27 and Oct. 1-3. Tickets are free for University of Wyoming students, with a suggested donation of $5 for the general public. Once a ticket has been obtained, audience members will receive an email with a link and a password to an online stream of the live performance.

Playwright and UW professor William Missouri Downs, who is also directing the production, said he started writing the play in May, once it became clear that UW’s fall theater line-up would be moved to the virtual realm.

“It had to be an emergency write,” he said. “It usually takes me about a year to write a comedy.”

But the fast-tracked pace doesn’t mean the ideas hadn’t been percolating in his mind for some time.

“I decided finally, as my tenure here at UW is drawing to a close, I’d write the play I’d always want to write — a play about the meaning of life,” he said.

In “Asking Strangers the Meaning of Life,” a writer meets the ghost of novelist Franz Kafka, setting off an existential chain of events that has each character confronting his or her purpose as they question existence.

The ideas of philosophers and writers from Buddha to Voltaire to Nietzsche make an appearance. A detour to Martha Stewart leads to contemplation of the frailties of the human body.

“We question whether this existence on this earth is designed for us, or whether we’re strangers on this planet,” Downs said.

The play was destined to be a comedy, he said, because a good laugh is a remedy for today’s uncertain times.

“I’m talking about philosophy, and I make fun of philosophy, but you don’t have to know any philosophy to watch the play,” he said.

In writing the play for Zoom, Downs has each character addressing the camera directly, as if the audience is sitting in the middle of a conversation between the actors in each scene. He keeps the pace brisk and shortened the run time from that of a traditional theater piece.

The work occupies a nebulous space somewhere in between in-person theater and film or television, he said.

“The one thing that makes theater special is that it’s live, and the idea is that the actors and the audience are breathing the same air. If that’s not happening, it’s not theater,” he said.

At the same time, a movie remains the same yesterday, today and always. That’s not the case with a theater production, which can never be captured but must be created anew each time.

“It’s still live, and it’s different every night, and that’s the other magic of theater,” he said.

Downs said he’s proud of the UW Department of Theatre and Dance for continuing with its fall season, when many theater companies around the world have shut their doors. And because the production is online, audience members can tune in from anywhere.

“For once, this tiny little theater department is going to be worldwide,” he said.

Downs has written for television, film, theater and print. His plays have been produced more than 250 times around the world.

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