WEST ORANGE, NJ — The year just started, but Luna Stage is in the middle of its theater season, and on Monday started rehearsals for “Roan @ the Gates,” a play about internet privacy and the risks of whistleblowing. The show, which features a two-person cast, will make its world premiere at Luna on Feb. 2, was written by Christina Gorman and is directed by Michelle Tattenbaum. Inspired by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents about surveillance programs in 2013, the story focuses on a couple whose relationship implodes based on national security concerns.
“I was fascinated with Edward Snowden and the idea of blowing up your life for something you believe in,” Gorman said in a Jan. 6 phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “I was watching the documentary ‘Citizenfour’ about him, looking for ideas for the play. At the end there’s a shot of him and his girlfriend is there. And when I saw that I was like, ‘That’s the play.’ It’s about what happens between the couple.”
“Roan @ the Gates” focuses on Roan, a data analyst for the National Security Agency, and her wife Nat, a human rights lawyer. When Roan leaks security information, they have to navigate their relationship in new ways.
Gorman did a lot of research while writing the play, also looking at the cases of other whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning.
“I wanted to know the mechanisms of it,” she said. “Where do you go, how do you get caught or not get caught? It’s interesting what has happened with privacy and surveillance and it’s become so much more relevant recently.”
Tattenbaum, who has known Gorman for years, said the play asks the audience to weigh their values against their personal relationships.
“What are you willing to sacrifice and who do you owe your loyalty to?” she said in a Jan. 4 phone interview with the Chronicle. “Is it your relationship or your country?”
The play has taken many forms since she wrote it, according to Gorman. Because technology and politics — and the intersection of the two — change so often and so fast, she was rewriting heavily and often, she said.
“It’s taken on a whole new angle, with stories about Russia manipulating the election and how they targeted voters,” Gorman said. “It focuses on what the government is doing, and I’ve had to change stuff because it actually happened in real life.”
Luna Stage Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith is in the midst of her first season at the helm of the theater company, and said she chose “Roan @ the Gates” because of how relevant to everyday life it became over the last couple of years.
“It was eerily resonant this year,” Kreith said in a Jan. 4 phone interview with the Chronicle. “I think we’re all realizing how not private technology is and how it can be used to manipulate us. The questions are timely because it’s about being a whistleblower and what do you do when you recognize there will be a huge personal cost? It’s a scary question.”
The show only features two actors, a change from the original five-person cast playing seven characters. After a read-through of the script that she said didn’t go well, Gorman said she decided to pare the cast down to only the couple being affected by the events of the story. When the curtain rises on opening night, Aaliyah Habib and Mel House will be the only actors on stage.
“Originally there were around seven characters, but I realized that I didn’t really care about anyone but the couple,” Gorman said. “The audience is only seeing the two of them; they’re not seeing who they’re talking about. When you have two characters, the pressure is on the plot and that’s challenging.”
Tattenbaum said directing a show with only two actors is sometimes easier and sometimes harder. Scheduling only a few people to be at rehearsal every day makes logistics less stressful, and there is less work to do surrounding the actors on stage.
“They’re both in every scene, so that makes things easier,” Tattenbaum said. “With a big cast you’re thinking about these big theater moments, but here we’re not doing that. It does really put the focus on the actors. It’s the kind of theater that makes you lean into that and there’s something special about that intimacy.”
Tattenbaum said that there are visual cues in the show to demonstrate the technology aspects. Justin Swader and Christopher Swader designed the sets; the lighting design is by Marika Kent; costumes were designed by Deborah Caney, and the sound design is by Megan Culley.
“We’re doing some cool things with lighting on the set,” Tattenbaum said. “That communicates data visually. We’re finding ways to bring that alive visually, because data and information is a mostly invisible thing.”
Kreith said the show will make audience members think about what they would do if they were ever put in the story’s situation.
“It has the audience think about what they would do,” she said. “The first time I read it I could not put it down. You care about these characters and it makes you think about if you want to take sides. I don’t think the world gives easy answers to any of these questions, so maybe art can help us find those answers in the world.”
Tattenbaum said that, as the play goes on, she wants the audience members to live inside the couple’s relationship and feel that they are real people in the real world, though they are really characters on a stage.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is create a production where the characters are swallowed by the computer world,” she said. “By the end of the play, there are less objects in their home and on the set. People are going to see two women trying to make their marriage work under extreme duress. I hope they think about the things that they would stand up for.”
The Luna production is the play’s world premiere. A second staging with a different production team from Central Works Theater Company in Berkeley, Calif., is scheduled for this summer. The opportunity to put on a show twice in one year is rare, Gorman said, adding that a play takes on a different flavor every time it is performed. For now though, she is focusing on the production that opens next month.
“I feel so excited to be a part of the evolution of Luna,” Gorman said. “They’re interested in characters and getting into the nitty-gritty of a show. And I’m excited to work with this cast. It’s such an intimate play, so for us to work on a production together is fantastic.”
Previews begin Thursday, Jan. 31, and the show officially opens Saturday, Feb. 2, and runs weekends through Sunday, Feb. 24. To purchase tickets, visit www.LunaStage.org/Roan or call 973-395-5551. Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley St. in West Orange.