On average people spend more than 22% of their time online using social media, checking their smart phone, Facebook, Twitter, email, pager, landline, postbox, carrier pigeon et al over 34 times a day. People will be at live gigs, recording and therefore watching through the screen of their camera. I’ve seen a person walk through the Louvre in Paris looking at all the treasures only through the screen on their video camera without actually looking at anything for real, despite the fact that it was right in front of their face.
In an age where one can always be in digital communication with the rest of the world at all times, it would seem having person-to-person contact and experience is on the decline, but what if you create a person-to-person contact about the digital world in which we live? Step forward Red Chair Players and Hidden Stories Theatre, two groups of young performers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival who have done just that: created live theatrical pieces that focus on our need for technology and the consequences that it has on our lives.
Hidden Stories Theatre is a homegrown Edinburgh company made up of recent graduates from Edinburgh Napier and Queen Margaret University, the first class to graduate from the new BA Acting for Stage and Screen course. Their show Tagged focuses on our generation’s relationship with Facebook and the people we meet through it, both on and offline. “I think that Facebook has a massive part to play in our younger generation, but there are different degrees of impact depending on where you are in your life,” says Craig Macdonald, one of the performers and writer of the piece. “Tagged came around after I spent some time thinking about how well we know the people we talk to online…I wanted to explore [the] idea of connection, or what active choices people make on social networking sites.”
As with any social media, there are pros and cons to Facebook, and the image you create online can be very different to the one sat in front of the computer screen, Macdonald observes. “We base our connection on how much information we can read from what people post online, without ever truly seeking that real connection with that person…we don’t attempt to find anything more than we can read on a day to day basis. There is a danger that we reveal too much about ourselves, too much about our day to day lives, our routines, our relationships and friendships which, to a certain degree, could all be used against us.”
The three person cast drives this dramatic and funny piece which uses multimedia to help tell the story – rather than abandoning and condemning digital media, Hidden Stories is actively making it part of their piece to convey the feeling of being on Facebook whilst watching live theatre. Macdonald and his cast are strong believers in the theatrical experience: “I firmly believe that in theatre, you feel as if you are part of it, as things that happen in the audience affect the production. Any laughter and unexpected emotional reactions you have can influence the actors telling of the story.”
Red Chair Players hail from the States and are all students at Greenwich Academy. They have been bringing shows to Edinburgh for ten years, which Dawn Fuller, the producer and director, believes is “the best acting class one can hope for”. Again, their piece Dead Man’s Cell Phone focuses on the idea of connection and engaging in relationships with strangers. “This idea of needing to be connected every minute of every day was a perfect starting point for character discussions at the beginning of our rehearsal process,” says Fuller. “On some level, we are de-sensitised to that ringing phone, the glow of the lap top screen… a single touch and the world is at our fingertips. It is our hope that [our audiences] will connect with others face to face – share something with one another.”
The play is written by American female playwright Sarah Ruhl. Fuller was conscious of putting on a female playwright’s work as she works at an all-female school. Whenever a show is from a different country – even an English speaking one – there will always be the challenge of seeing whether it works on an international stage: “a leap of faith in the translation of what two different cultures find funny or compelling. The first cell phone ring that interrupts a monologue in our show always gets a chuckle…it’s a universal truth.”
By giving her students the opportunity to come to Edinburgh and experience another culture and way of working (i.e. solidly for a month without much sleep) Fuller is allowing her young performers “to witness artists commit to their work with passion every day that they are at the festival. They have an opportunity to understand that there might not be a ‘pay off’ at then end… That is an invaluable lesson.” She sets the same challenge to each new group of young people that she brings to Edinburgh – rehearsals start in June, five weeks later they do an off-Broadway run in New York, and then the following week they fly to Scotland, buy their furniture and props when they arrive as they cannot travel with them, do a jet-lagged tech run and open the following day. That’s how intense the Edinburgh process can be, but thoroughly worthwhile if the piece can make us laugh and give us an hour to think about whether we actually need to keep checking our phone – surely one purpose of technology is that we have a choice of thousands of sounds to alert us to the fact that someone is trying to contact us?
By using the media that is available to us in this mass digital age, Red Chair Players and Hidden Stories Theatre are able to both harness and analyse the effect that technology has on our lives. Perhaps it is time for us to reassess our relationship with technology, switch off our phones and computers and head to the theatre for some good ol’ fashioned human experience.
Red Chair Players presented Dead Man’s Cell Phone at C Venues on 11 August. For more information about the company, visit www.greenwichacademy.org.
Image 1: Tagged by New Celts and Hidden Stories
Image 2: Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Red Chair Players