Collaging Meets Social Media – a response to ‘fawnbook’

photo © Schecter Lee 2015

photo © Schecter Lee 2015

The preeminent godfather of downtown theater (and I’m talking about Jeff Jones here, people) teaches a workshop on collage.  Or he used to teach it, anyway, I assume he still does.  I absorbed the shorter single-weekend-long version while at grad school a handful of years back.  And I’m not going to sum up the entire experience because a) you should take the workshop if you can one day, and b) you can get the gist of at least some of it by perusing his most excellent blog posts on various alternative structures and new ways of thinking about theater making. A key part of our assignment was to go out and find ‘junk’ text and bring it into class.  Junk is a title that can be applied to many things, but in general the most effective text was pulled from sources like the Craigslist ‘Missed Connections’ page in Pittsburgh, or the written ad copy for something like Lipitor, say.  If the text was good – or, another way of looking at it, if it made too much sense – it wasn’t as useful to us.  Because what we were to do with this text was, without much thought but in a flurry of action and aggression, collage the shit out of it.  Cut it, dice it, repurpose it.  Eliminate nouns!  Redistribute verbs! Put non-like sentences next to each other.  Take proper nouns, turn them into characters, give them other junk to ‘say.’  Find a location in the text, make that the landscape.  Build it up, tear it down.  The junky stuff worked best because it was the opposite of precious.  It was just material, which became strange and useful by arranging it, against its original intention, in an artistic way as opposed to the commercial (Lipitor) or heartbrokenly desperate (Craigslist).  

In Gemini Collisionwork’s fawnbook, a play by Ayun Halliday and directed by Jean-Michele Gregory that is currently playing at The Brick in rep with Nord Hausen Fly Robot through November 20th, a similar textual exploration is being undertaken.  All the text in the play is pulled from actual written comments and updates posted on Facebook.  The text has been removed from its original context and reconstituted into dialogue, split between seven different characters.  They have been given a landscape, which is referred to at the top of play. Essentially, it’s after some version of the apocalypse (much of the text pulled to tell this part of the story seems to be from Facebook responses to an earthquake; I don’t know when the play was derived, but I suspected it was the big recent one in Tibet, just based I guess on the tone and the fact that Americans kind of cared about it).  Given the text limitations, this apocalypse is rendered in a general kind of way, but we do know that there is no more electricity, and therefore, no more social media.  All that remains are these repurposed comments, standing in for actual speech.

The day-to-day existence of this family is mostly to sweep a pile of rags from one end of the stage to another, make small(ish) talk about food, what they’ve seen outside, and give report on the movements of a fawn that has been sighted nearby.  In fact, some of them are able to see the fawn through a window (of sorts) that appears as a projection.  Time passes quickly, vignette-style.  Sometimes it seems like the characters have some agency in terms of how this works, as they make an action like wiping something away, and the lights go out.  Other times, the light and pauses in action come and go on their own.  There are no particularly sustained sequences, although a few more silent and character-based moments emerge, one of which occurs when one of the teenage boys (of which there are three, played with charisma by John Albert, Maxwell Piersol, and Benny Rendell) returns with a vinyl record he found and they’re somehow able to play it by using potatoes to provide enough electrical current to work the turntable.  Music fills the space, and the boys dance, wild with it.  The three older women (Marjorie Duffield, Ayun Halliday, and Chris Lindsay-Abaire) are alternatively happy to dance along, and incredibly depressed to hear the sounds of the old world, echoing out of a now-irrelevant machine.

Sometimes the action is interrupted by a crazed man (always played with animation by Nick Balaban, but appearing – I think – as three different people) who brings terrible tidings from the outside world.  Eventually, he is followed by a kind of tragedy, which brings the play to a close.  Another memorable sequence features this man, covered in dust and dirt, squealing about how his entire family is gone, cities, villages, and getting a very trite ‘My thoughts and prayers are with your family’ from the oldest of the teenage boys – a response simultaneously polite, sarcastic, and inadequate.

This type of interaction is about the extent to which the Facebook collage method is able to generate insight, though.  It gets close to breaking through the constraints and limitations of its required use, but there’s something that keeps us from feeling particularly close to or engaged with the characters.  Partially, I suspect, the comments used aren’t quite junky enough.  They’re arranged neatly into a kind of plot, and sorted into logical batches.  It seems like a silly uneasiness – that perhaps this collage is too logical – but what feels like a strong initial idea to use social media text in order to render a world in which that media no longer exists never quite pays itself all the way off.  Which, I suppose, is awfully close to the feeling you get when scrolling through Facebook itself; that vague emptiness that gains power which each search, swipe, like, and comment.  The medium is the message, even after the medium is gone.

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