In this digital age, our increasing reliance on online technology frequently challenges notions of identity, community and creativity, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined. Attempting to tackle these issues head on, Megalopolitan is an ambitious project that explores our complex, changing relationships with technology through a fusion of performance poetry, live musical soundscapes, animation, projection and puppetry.
Due to make its debut at London’s VAULT Festival next month, the show is the result of an exciting collaboration between writer Karis Halsall and composer Samuel Organ, who spoke to A Younger Theatre about their work and the creative process behind it.
Halsall initially began working on the project about five years ago while seeking ways of collaborating with artists working in other disciplines.
“I have a studio in Hackney where I work with visual artists and graphic designers as well as actors and performers. I’ve always been mainly interested in writing, but recently I’ve started thinking about how to be innovative with that, and about finding ways of collaborating with my peers, because I have so many amazing creative friends.”
The project started to assume a clearer shape after she saw Organ performing with the Physics House Band at the Brighton Fringe. Taken with his stunning live soundscapes, she enlisted his help with the project, using a stack of huge mind maps to explain her ideas.
“For me, it was just a case of going through and saying, ‘Yeah, we can do that’ or ‘No, that’s not possible,’ and crafting something more collaborative, because obviously the idea had been solely Karis’s before,” Organ said.
Set in a busy, inner-city environment across real and digital spaces, the written play consists of four character monologues, linked together by a narrative poem.
“The monologues explore the themes of collective consciousness and technology in relation to ourselves,” said Halsall. “We touch on Carl Jung’s idea that we all have a shadow self that we keep hidden away and when we’re in large groups like in a city, that psychosis becomes a group-based psychosis.”
The first of the four characters is a hoarder, whose neurosis was partly inspired by the ways in which we all use digital technology today.
“[She] came out of this idea that we’re all hoarders now but we don’t realise it. On our phones we carry around thousands of pictures and songs and texts, and on Facebook we have hundreds of friends. We collect and amass so much stuff, but it’s okay because it’s digital. If you had all of that in real life, people would think you were a bit mad.”
Other characters include a nun, a yoga teacher and an internet troll battling her addiction to posting abusive messages. Halsall’s take on this last character is, unusually, a sympathetic one.
“I set myself the task of writing all of her trolling tweets, which will be integrated into the piece, and I found it surprisingly easy. I was intrigued by the story of the troll who got caught and hung herself. When I heard about it, I didn’t feel immediately angry with her, and the idea of her feeling so awful that she ended her life kind of made me sympathise with her. I guess if we start targeting trolls and treating them badly, are we not just as bad as they are?”
Meanwhile, the yoga teacher is partly an expression of how capitalist ideology has infiltrated our thinking.
“I spent a lot of time listening to YouTube meditation videos, and you hear things like, “You deserve abundance,” and “Abundance comes easily to you”. It just makes me wonder why we need abundance. Why are we striving for more than we need? I’m really interested in the hypocrisy of that and the idea that even spirituality is affected by capitalism.”
These characters and their obsessions feed into the inclusion of other creative strands like puppetry and animation.
“Because a whole section of the play explores the idea of a shadow self, including puppetry felt quite natural. Using animation came from the idea of avatars and how we present ourselves online. Also, because the show explores technology so much, it felt like we should actually use new technology to make it.”
The initial proposal for Megalopolitan won an IdeasTap brief to be staged at VAULT Festival in the tunnels beneath Waterloo station, a setting befitting its contemporary, urban aesthetic.
“It’s all underground and cavernous and industrial and we’ll be in a place called The Cage, which is perfect. Also for Sam, playing around with ambient sound in underground tunnels is a dream come true!”
Although they haven’t yet had chance to work within the space, they’re looking forward to experimenting as they go along.
“Sam controls a lot of the sound he creates live, so once we’re in there, he can see how the space affects it and change things accordingly. The beauty of that is that it can be different every night.”
This process of change and experimentation is something that Halsall hopes will continue in future collaborations through her newly established production company, Luminary Theatre.
“The idea is for Megalopolitan to become an ever-changing identity. I’d like to keep bringing in different artforms and developing it into something increasingly multi-layered. One thing I’d like to look at is gaming, and Alex Crampton, who is directing the show, is currently working on a project about the gamification of theatre. […] Obviously, funds are limited, but I definitely think the show has a shelf life beyond VAULT Festival.”
Megalopolitan will be performed from 18-22 February as part of the VAULT Festival at London Waterloo, with tickets priced at £9.50.