Baby Jessica's Well-Made Play: Performed to One Person at a Time By Phone

Philip Santos Schaffer in an earlier production.
Philip Santos Schaffer in an earlier production. Photo by Charlotte Arnoux

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Philip Santos Schaffer in an earlier production.
Photo by Charlotte Arnoux
Even though he wasn't even alive when it happened, playwright/actor Philip Santos Schaffer of New York City has been fascinated for years with the Baby Jessica story of the child who fell down a Midland, Texas well leading to a rescue seen by viewers around the world.

Baby Jessica or Jessica McClure was 18 months old in 1987 when she slipped down a well casing 8 inches in diameter at her aunt's house. In the next 56 hours, media coverage provided regular updates as rescue workers tried to get to where she had fallen 22 feet below. "Especially being a time of pre-internet or early internet, it was a time when it seems like everyone paid attention to one news story."

Schaffer with WalkUp Arts, is known for his immersive theater productions including going to people's houses and sitting in their bathtubs. The bathtub scene was not compatible with the arrival of the coronavirus and he knew he needed to come up with something new.  The result —  Baby Jessica's Well-Made Play — is a play that at each performance asks the one-member audience (yes, only one audience member at a time) to imagine what it is like to be stuck. It is performed virtually.

"It’s very, very loosely based on the story," Schaffer says. "It’s not at all a retelling. It uses it to explore the themes of fear and of hope and explore the importance of media and the ways in which media can be detrimental. The audience member during it is put in position of imagining themselves as Baby Jessica but also experience talking about their own experiences and their own lives and then sort of zooms out and sort of listens to audio that's inspired by the emotions of the experience that she would have gone through. They also talk to another audience member [from a previous performance]."

"What does it mean to have to wait for someone else. What does it mean to be in a circumstance that is unprecedented and to be afraid for such a long period of time."

The play has four acts right now and is performed over the phone. The first is an audio clip sent to the audience member. The second act is is the most traditional as the audience member is interacting with an actor who has a script. The third act pairs the present audience member with a former one who asks 58 questions about the audience member's experience and pop culture topics. He says the first three acts can take up to three hours a night, he says.

"In the fourth act you become the person who's asking those questions of another audience member."

It takes place over two nights. The first three acts are the first night.  In the future there will be a fifth act when Schaffer has collected responses from 58 people, he says. Any person, anywhere can buy a ticket because they can call in.

Anyone sharing their person experiences doesn't have to worry about being embarrassed by his or her words going on line. No recording is made of the encounter between actor and audience member he said. The only thing saved is the answer to question No. 54 (whatever that is).

Right now they have one performance a night on Thursdays through Sundays, he says. Cost of a ticket is $25 all of which goes to the actor involved, Schaffer says. They pay for it through fundraising efforts the last two years..

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