Palanquin gives audiences a glimpse into the reality of reality television

Palanquin explores how much reality is truly involved in reality television, and challenges audiences to explore their own realities.

Genevieve+Eckelaert+performs+as+LA+downstage+of+Leela+Bassuk+as+DC+and+two+of+the+hooded+figures+during+a+dress+rehearsal+of+Palanquin+at+the+Alan+McVey+Theatre+in+the+Theatre+Building+on+Thursday%2C+Feb.+25%2C+2020.++The+show+opens+Thursday%2C+Feb.+27.+

Jenna Galligan

Genevieve Eckelaert performs as LA downstage of Leela Bassuk as DC and two of the hooded figures during a dress rehearsal of Palanquin at the Alan McVey Theatre in the Theatre Building on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2020. The show opens Thursday, Feb. 27.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

The University of Iowa’s Theatre Arts Department is bringing the reality of reality television to the stage today to March 1. Palanquin gives a glimpse into what goes on when the cameras shut off through the medium of an elimination-style reality show, which allows the audience to get a peek behind the scenes.

SP O’Brien, Palanquin’s playwright, said the U.S.’s image-obsessed culture was his inspiration for the play.

“I was thinking about image and presentation, and how we do that in our lives constantly, and what it means to be multiple people within yourself and the different kinds of people we have to present as in our lives,” O’Brien said.

Miriam Ochs performs as Pheonix alongside Olivia Schneider as Topeka during a dress rehearsal of Palanquin at the Alan McVey Theatre in the Theatre Building on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2020. The show opens Thursday, Feb. 27.

From the Kardashians to Instagram, the public face that many project doesn’t always match up with reality. Palanquin explores the person behind the screen.

“We don’t ever really learn that much about [reality television stars]. They get cast as the mean person, the nice person, the psycho, the innocent one. You get a label thrown on you,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s a dissociation that happens in yourself when you’re on a reality show.”

O’Brien used to work at a talent agency in New York City, where he encountered a handful of clients who were on reality television. O’Brien also had the opportunity to interview a reality show contestant with the show’s director, Sarah Lacy Hamilton.

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Palanquin’s creative team weren’t the only ones to draw inspiration from reality stars. Genevieve Eckelaert, who plays lead LA, said she watched Paris Hilton documentaries to get into character.

“My character, LA, isn’t exactly Paris Hilton, she’s very close to her,” Eckelaert said. “I didn’t want to try to mimic her, but I do take a lot of aspects from her life and her on-camera persona verses her off-camera persona.”

Jenna Galligan
Actors portray hooded figures during a dress rehearsal of Palanquin at the Alan McVey Theatre in the Theatre Building on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2020. The show opens Thursday, Feb. 27.

One of the most unique aspects of the show is that the characters are portrayed as both their reality star selves and the selves that are true to reality, O’Brien said.

“One of the major challenges of the show is the difference in performance and visual style when the characters are ‘on-camera’ or ‘off-camera’. It required very specific work in rehearsal and creative lighting and sound design,” Hamilton said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Hamilton said she was up for the challenge because Palanquin will be the last show she directs at the UI before graduating.

Hamilton and O’Brien agreed that they hope the audience is reflective of themselves and the show’s themes once the show is over.

“I hope that the audience examines the masks they wear in their own lives, and questions the systems that make that kind of personal performance necessary,” Hamilton said.

O’Brien posed some questions to go unanswered in the play, with the play’s title being one of them.

“A lot of people when I tell them about it ask me, ‘What is a palanquin?’ Rightfully so, because it’s the title,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s really important to the play and its meaning, but the play doesn’t tell you what a palanquin is.”

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