Below is our review of Linked Dance Theatre’s first remote experience, Like Real People Do. Our review contains minor spoilers.
I’m roleplaying as a newly-hired Junior Archivist at the Department of Manhattan Memory, and I’m currently doing something that I very much shouldn’t. But with considerable effort my predecessor, Cornelia, and I have convinced my boss, Daphne, that it’s important enough to take the risk. Despite the fact that we are under no circumstances supposed to be viewing two memories simultaneously, that’s exactly what we’re doing. But after a few minutes of watching long-distance boyfriends Luke and Leo try to save their relationship, there is a brief flicker of distortion and the conversation gets replaced by dance. Luke reaches out, Leo pulls away. Leo moves close to the camera while Luke retreats and sits, huddled, in the windowsill of his living room. Those brief, hopeful moments where both start to extend their arms toward one another break off as soon as they begin. And all the while snippets from earlier in the call play back amid seemingly random visual artifacts, Leo’s pained “there’s always a time limit for our time together” an important refrain.
Like Real People Do is an ongoing, single-participant, sci-fi romance ARG by Linked Dance Theatre, an NYC-based immersive production company which uses dance and movement as core storytelling components. It takes place over four 30-40-minute Zoom sessions with at least a day between each, during which time participants have the option to review video files and engage in in-character email exchanges that flesh out the experience’s lore and help further the narrative. While Like Real People Do is the company’s first remote-only experience, it is effectively a reboot of an in-person 2017 production with the same name. The current version differs from the original in several major ways beyond the obvious format change – those who saw the original may recognize the Department of Manhattan Memory (DoMM) and its work with memories from romantic relationships, but the story told here is entirely new.
The basic premise is that participants are new hires with the DoMM’s Long-Distance Relationships Division, and are beginning their training as a Junior Archivist. After submitting an “application” for the job and being notified by the DoMM that they’ve been accepted, the first Zoom session starts off the training process. Their first task is to review and categorize Case #809, a specific memory from the long-distance relationship between partners Luke (Jordan Chlapecka) and Leo (Nicky Romaniello). While the participant’s immediate supervisor, Daphne Brooks (Rita McCann), is based in Manhattan where Luke also resides, investigating the case fully requires coordinating with Cornelia Prue (Kendra Slack) at the newer, much smaller Department of Pasadena Possibilities due to it having jurisdiction over Leo. However, as the story progresses it becomes clear not only that there’s a lot more going on than it initially seems, but that Daphne and Cornelia’s relationship is the true focus of Like Real People Do. The decision to set a deeply personal and ultimately positive story within a faceless, somewhat Orwellian organization calls to mind Out There. As with the one-on-one, Like Real People Do uses the dystopian overtones of DoMM to conceal the experience’s true message at first, but over time allows it to emerge into the forefront.
It’s therefore unsurprising that memory, long-distance relationships, and how emotions affect both are key themes in Like Real People Do. Several parts of the experience can involve some surprisingly philosophical discussion about what memory really is, and how our emotions affect the stories we tell ourselves. How certain memories serve as defining moments or turning points, in our relationships and otherwise, and how two people can experience the same event together but come away with very different feelings about what that moment in time meant. Like Real People Do is also a frank look at how difficult it can be to keep a relationship alive when you’re hundreds, or even thousands, of miles apart. This plays out more overtly in the Luke and Leo plot arc, but it also becomes obvious that despite initial appearances to the contrary, Daphne and Cornelia miss working together almost as much as Luke and Leo miss each other’s embrace.
There’s also a fair bit of lampshading of east-coast vs west-coast stereotypes. Manhattanites Daphne and Luke are professional, reserved, and cerebral; Californians Cornelia and Leo, meanwhile, are passionate, creative, and a little flighty. But rather than take sides, the differences in outlook and attitude are ultimately portrayed as complimentary. With Daphne and Cornelia, in particular, the differences are less oil and vinegar than yin and yang and, without each other, each side of the pair is ultimately less happy and less stable.
Dance is also an important part of Like Real People Do, serving as nonverbal dialogue in pivotal scenes to great effect. Where emotions are too deep to fully express through words, Like Real People Do shifts into carefully choreographed routines in which movement conveys the characters’ innermost thoughts in ways that language isn’t always capable. The music accompanying the dance sequences is ethereal and dreamlike, in keeping with how the modulations represent distortions of reality. But what’s most impressive is how well the cast is able to communicate conflict, desire, longing, sadness, and more through the choreography. Chlapecka and Romaniello, in particular, do amazing work of showing how the two lovers think and feel about each other through how their bodies move to the music.
Though this is Linked Dance Theatre’s first remote experience, Like Real People Do makes effective use of digital video and the ARG format. The memory sequences are well-edited, and have an overall feel that matches the bureaucratic, quasi-governmental agency vibe of the DoMM. Subtle visual effects distort the video clips when things shift from dialogue to dance, and the audio with them enhances the dreamlike feel one might expect from peering into another human’s memories.
The set design is admittedly (and understandably) limited, but it’s well-thought-out. The presence (or absence) of props and décor do much to reinforce the personalities and mental states of the occupants; Daphne’s office is spartan, while Cornelia’s is cluttered with a chaotic mishmash of objects. Luke’s apartment is sensible but homey, while Leo’s is nearly empty. Lighting is also used effectively to help reinforce the mindset of the characters. Daphne’s office is lit in stark corporate white, reflecting her by-the-book professionalism. The first time we see Leo there’s no artificial light, which adds to the feeling that he’s struggling more than Luke. And later on, after things have taken a turn, seeing a disheveled Daphne in a poorly-lit bedroom area helps hammer home that she has had her world flipped on its head. Similar considerations are given to costuming, and when things change, we know something’s up.
Breaking Like Real People Do up into four evenings with interstitials helps quite a bit with fostering investment and immersion. The initial “job application” serves as a soft introduction to the world and lore, and can serve as a character creation exercise for those prone to roleplay. The emails between Zoom sessions offer both additional lore and opportunities to interact with the characters, and their tone serves to help bridge the gap between the meetings with Daphne versus those with Cornelia. These interstitials are entirely optional, and affect neither the major plot beats nor the overall outcome. More passive participants can ignore them and let Daphne and Cornelia largely do the talking during the Zoom sessions, but Like Real People Do rewards those who actively engage.
But all of the above would be moot if the cast and script weren’t up to par. Thankfully, Like Real People Do delivers on those scores as well. McCann’s Daphne and Slack’s Cornelia are polar opposites but equally convincing, and both improvise well when the participant chooses to engage them. Chlapecka and Romaniello, meanwhile, make it easy to believe that the two are lovers struggling to make things work under the weight of a three-time-zone separation, and are fabulous dancers when words inevitably fail them. The story overall is also worthwhile, blending elements of romance, Orwellian science-fiction, and office drama into a tale that is definitely surreal, but ultimately one with a lot of heart. It’s clear that a lot of care went into creating a new Like Real People Do that was not simply a port of the original, but a brand new experience made specifically for remote audiences that considered in depth the very different challenges and opportunities of the format.
If there is one thing to suggest, it would be that for future lore-heavy experiences like this, it might be worth embracing the ARG format more fully. While it takes more work, setting up things like in-character websites and social media accounts can often enhance immersion and give participants a richer experience. Particularly for a production in which there is so much depth behind the story, having more ways to dig into the world of the DoMM would be great. While the story and format are different, something like Arcana may serve as a comparison point; as with Like Real People Do, it featured rich background lore and makes use of real-world locations, but it took things a step further when it came to character interaction. Participants in Arcana were able to interact with characters over Instagram and email at various points, and some were able to cultivate strong in-character relationships with Jade in particular. While it was extra work for the cast, it definitely added to the immersion and emotional investment for those who took advantage.
What Like Real People Do ultimately offers is a sophisticated, multilayered, and very well-made ARG with some terrific world-building, focused on exploring how relationships, emotions, and memory all interact. The strength of the cast’s performances make it easy to become invested in the characters, and the detailed world-building helps immerse participants in the story. Fans of highly-interactive experiences will have plenty to work with.
Linked Dance Theatre currently plans to run the experience through the end of the year, with tickets priced at $65 and released in rolling blocks for a month at a time. For more information on Like Real People Do and other productions, you can contact Linked Dance Theatre on their website here, on Facebook, or on Instagram.