To Post or Not to Post?
What does it mean to live and die in the age of Social Media? This is the question at the heart of Five on a Match’s Seen/By Everyone at HERE Arts Center. Set in a limbo-like bar, aptly named Acheron (the Greek river of woe in the underworld), the cast of characters begins the show by mourning their friend Anthony Bello, who has unexpectedly died. However, as the show continues the audience quickly realizes that the late Bello is not the center of this play, as the characters’ egos cannot leave room for this absent person. As is often the case on social media, the characters cannot see past their own daily dramas and triumphs. As the show progresses, trite conversations about dating, divorce, and vacation dissolve into cacophonous greek choral recitations of social media slogans, “Topless Vacation Selfie!” “Blessed,” “So Excited to Share,” etc. Punctuated by video projections and the occasional karaoke performances, the show ultimately culminates in the passing of another soul, just as it began, suggesting that the internet and the black hole that is social media never truly end.
Social media and the internet are certainly not new topics of discussion for a theater piece. However, Seen/By Everyone tries to shed new light on these ephemeral parts of our life by going straight to the source. In a program note, the company states, “The five of us did not write this play: we collaged it. Every word spoken, every sound uttered, was pulled from various social media platforms. The characters and situations were created by pasting this found text-our raw material-together,” and indeed the playwright in the program is credited as “you.” Looking back, this found text was most obvious to me during the greek chorus moments, and, frankly, I found these moments to be the least interesting. Ultimately the ensemble used the found text to develop characters, but once those characters were developed, I found myself questioning whether sticking to the found text was necessary.
There is optimistic Bernice, sarcastic Helen, joyous John, love deprived Art, vacation obsessed Elizabeth, and a handful of other characters, ultimately all of whom we recognize from our own personal experiences on Facebook, or Instagram, or any other platform. However, as the show progresses these stereotypes dissolve as reality creeps in and we see the cracks in their social media facades. It was once these cracks began to reveal themselves that I began to care about those on stage and their stories. As is universally acknowledged, a Facebook post will never be as interesting or truthful as a conversation or shared experience, and once the dialogue stopped feeling like Facebook recitations, I began to actually invest in the poor souls on stage. For it is this collection of poor souls who breath life and meaning into otherwise stale dialogue and commentary.
The heart of this piece lies in the bar goers – their lives, their hopes, their fears, their dreams. If one were to strip away all of the “gimmicks” – the direct quotations, projections, soundscape, abstract physicality, mask work – you would be left with a group of deeply sad individuals trying to find connections with fellow human beings. And isn’t that what’s truly at the heart of social media? Aren’t we all just trying to connect? I can’t help but wonder if Seen/By Everyone would have better achieved its goals of highlighting our desperate use and need of social media to live by focusing on the humanity of its characters. Could one create a piece of theater that ruminates on technology without using any?
Certainly there are contemporary plays written about the internet, online bullying, chat rooms, social media, etc. that do not expressly request the use of technology. Are they better equipped to tell their stories without literal technology detracting from the story on stage? I suppose it ultimately comes down to what story you are telling, for the internet is so vast that its power and influence on our lives and our stories are limitless. I suppose this was ultimately my biggest confusion with Seen/By Everyone: I didn’t know what story Five on a Match was attempting to tell.