Halima Hassan contemplates loneliness and its inevitable links to technology and social media as she chats to Owen Calvert-Lyons, Director of Ovalhouse’s Random Selfies
There is vast difference between being alone and feeling lonely. As an adult, I find myself occupying the former state often, like I did as a child and teen, though I do not feel as lonely as I once did. As adults we have a little more insight and life experience that we can use to cope with difficult moments. Without this, for young people, not understanding or being able to convey how and why you feel a certain way probably compounds the pain and confusion of loneliness.
The Co-op Foundation is the charitable arm of The Cooperative Group, helping improve circumstances for disadvantaged communities around the country. The foundation is leading a UK-wide programme called ‘Belong’, which consists of projects that explore and tackle youth loneliness. One of their goals is to break down the stigma around the subject.
Random Selfies, a new play written by Mike Kenny and directed by Owen Calvert-Lyons is one of the projects funded by the Co-op Foundation. “[Random Selfies] is the story about of a girl [Loretta] growing up in Central London who has a loving family; a busy family. She doesn’t have any of the problems that one might normally associate with loneliness. Often people feel like there has to be a huge cause behind loneliness,” Owen Calvert-Lyons, also Head of Theatre and Artist Development at Ovalhouse Theatre, explains. I meet with him on an abnormally warm February afternoon, at the Ovalhouse cafe, to discuss the play.
There are numerous studies on loneliness in children as young as 10, such as this one from the Office of National Statistics, as well as research done by the Co-op Foundation looking at a slightly older age group (16–24 years) and yet youth and childhood loneliness are not part of larger conversations about community and belonging. Therefore projects like Random Selfies are so important: “We wanted to ensure that children’s feelings were given a high status, having them written into a play and placed on to the stage, elevates the status of these problems and makes them real and important,” Calvert-Lyons tells me.
In preparation for the play, the team, with support from the Co-op Foundation, staged a number of workshops with children and young people allowing them to explore and share their experiences of loneliness. “We didn’t start with the principle that loneliness had to be negative or universal. What we found was that most children experience loneliness and understood on some level that it was ok [to feel this way] and, if anything, desirable to be part of our lives, that there may be as many problems caused by never feeling lonely,” Calvert-Lyons explains.
Random Selfies is set against a dynamic, animated background designed by Rachana Jadhav. This was an intentional decision made by the creative team early in the production process, in order to give insight into Loretta’s mind. “There are two projection spaces within the set. The ideas that Loretta describes can instantly appear around her which is a really dynamic way of telling the story,” Calvert-Lyons describes. “[This design] enables crucial moments that allow the character to not speak and still [the audience can] understand something profound about her.”
So much of the experience of loneliness is solitary and silent. Using digitally animated backdrops that convey what the character is experiencing internally is a powerful way of layering storytelling and conveying that though we can never know what is going on inside someone’s head, it is probably something relatable.
The types of connections we can form today are plenty, thanks to the internet. I have many virtual relationships, including friendships that have survived the fall of social media platforms of the past and I’m sure will survive the downfall of current ones too. Then there are the perceived, Parasocial relationships that often form between online personalities and audiences. “Loretta is obsessed with vlogs,” Calvert-Lyons tells me. “Mike, Natalia Hinds – the actress who first developed the play with us and I, watched endless vlogs and some of the language from those videos informed the dialogue we used in the play.”
I wonder how technology and social media play into the modern experiences of childhood loneliness. I imagine online interactions might have abated some of the loneliness I felt as a child, considering how joyful those interactions are for me as an adult. “From our research it became clear that it is a mixed blessing. In some ways [the internet] is that answer, it allowed them to be connected with other children. Some identified it as problematic often with the sense of it being an amplifying—so if a child begins to feel lonely, for whatever reason, then the technology might amplify that feeling and the play explores that. But we’re very careful to present a balanced picture—technology is just part of children’s life and not entirely for the negative.”
Calvert-Lyons continues, “We don’t want Loretta’s loneliness to be easily dismissed—that she had some other underlying problem that is leading to her loneliness. We wanted her to be ostensibly a child that many other children could relate to.”
A topic discussed during the workshops that really struck Calvert-Lyons was the idea of ‘being seen’. “It is important for all of us to have a strong sense of who we are and feel that we’re able to share that with those around us; to be seen. If we are hiding that, we are not able to be our true self and that is a waste of our infinite potential.”
Changing to fit in provides temporary comfort. Adopting a personality that you know will be welcomed is a protective mechanism. After all, it is that much harder to be rejected for who you really are than anything else. Though it seems that, when it comes to feelings of loneliness, it is taking that risk of being yourself that helps alleviate those feelings. That being appreciated and respected for who you really are is the opposite of loneliness.
I can see Random Selfies being meaningful for children and adults alike. To see feelings that you can identify with on stage is powerful and an immediate antidote to loneliness. For adults to see the feelings of their younger self validated can be a step toward healing from the impact of childhood loneliness. There is still a year left of the Ovalhouse’s collaboration with the Co-op Foundation and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us.
Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
Random Selfies is playing from 27 March to 7 April. For more information or to book tickets, visit the Ovalhouse Theatre website.
Schools that come to see the production will benefit from a workshop run after the performance by drama therapist Bryn Jones, exploring what it means to be seen.