Monday, 16 July 2018

Feed Dramaturgy: Ailin Conant @ Edfringe 2018

What was the inspiration for this performance?

When we began working on Feed, it was in the wake of Brexit and Trump and we thought we were going to be doing a piece on echo chambers, fake news, and social division.  The more we researched, however, the more we realised that Feed was actually about capitalism. 

It’s a play about the attention economy and how our focus as consumers—our engagement, our emotional arousal, and the time we spend with our eyeballs drinking in content—is the greatest commodity on the current market. This means that anything that provokes emotion—humour, scandal, outrage, sensationalism—rises to the top while nuance and deep thinking are pushed out the picture. 

Fake news and social divisions are a part of that, but they are a tangential by-product of a much darker and more insidious thing and really only the tip of the iceberg.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

I think in this age of highly personalised and curated content, live performance is one of the best spaces for public discussion because A) it’s shared and B) it’s live.  These are two things that are becoming increasingly rare in our hyper-connected-but-disconnected world.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I don’t actually remember because I was so young, but my mum tells me she used to take me to see a touring kid’s Shakespeare company that did cut-down versions of Shakespeare plays when I was in nursery, and that from about age five I started pestering her to let me be in the shows.  

I had to wait until I was eight to join the troupe,
after that I never looked back.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Every show invents its own new approach, doesn’t it?  With this show, we began with a series of workshops working with professional playwrights and young people to address this itching question about social media: how it was changing our relationship to ourselves and to other people.  

It’s such a vast subject so the real work of this play was about selecting and articulating the subject, something that took us months.  At one point we were working with the Tactical Technology Collective (creators of the sell-out pop-up The Glass Room) to create a joint foyer exhibition, and two days through the discussion and partnership we realised, ‘Ah wait, Feed is about the attention economy, whereas The Glass Room is about the data economy.’  

Don’t worry if that disambiguation goes over your head, we’re still getting our own heads around it after months of researching.  So the process of making this show has been very different to others in that the landscape is constantly shifting; the subject we’re trying to articulate is evolving so quickly and is such a popular discussion point in the current zeitgeist that a significant part of the process has been just trying to understand and keep up with the subject. 

We have to be on top of what is general knowledge, and what is specialist knowledge, all while figuring out how we can apply theatre to bridging the gap between the two in a poetic and engaging way.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

You might know from our past work, The Fantasist, Nobody’s Home, and The Marked, that we’re passionate about translating internal experiences… using visual theatre to flip the human mind inside-out and show a protagonist’s mental journey through the tangible world.  

In the past we’ve dealt with individualised subjects like bi-polar disorder and post-traumatic stress, but Feed feels like the first piece we’ve ever done that looks at a lived mental experience that almost all of us are grappling with in some way: the onslaught of stimulation from smartphones and social media, and how we are coping with and adapting to our new information landscape.  

What’s surprising is that Feed actually feels like the most neurotic show we’ve made to date.  There’s a certain logic to something like traumatic experience, where there may be a swirl of emotions to navigate but somewhere in there you can find the vulnerability, the humanity, the logic, the root.  The attention economy, on the other hand, is capitalism unleashed on the human mind; it’s addiction, it’s manipulation, it’s deception, and it’s completely devoid of any ethics or monitoring.  
It’s a world in which every human experience is a commodity.  Making this play has made us all feel a little bit less sane.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

With past shows, we always had a clear goal of increasing empathy for the protagonist (and by proxy, anyone with a similar story or background).  But Feed has been created in reaction to a moment in time when we were experience empathy burnout; when victim-driven news items were flooding our Facebook feeds and we felt ourselves shutting down to the plight of humans living the various crises of our time.  As storytellers, we needed to take a step back and look at the underlying dynamics of the stories of our times.  

We’ve learned a lot in the process about the way we tell our stories to ourselves as a species, and it’s really changed the way we see things, especially the way we take things in.  In a way, it’s been liberating…building Feed has given us just a tiny bit of reflective distance between ourselves and the media around us, and with that some relief from the whirlwind of guilt and rage and titillation and stimulation that it does its best to suck us into.  

I guess, we want people to laugh, we want people to be provoked and slightly uncomfortable, we want people to see familiar things from a new perspective, we want people to fully embrace and grieve the problems of our times…but mostly, in the space of digestion and reflection that follows, we want to share with our audiences that very small gift of a little bit of freedom from the all of the senseless chatter and noise, so that they have the space reconnect to what’s most real and important.

Pleasance Dome (King Dome), Potterow, Edinburgh, EH8 9AL
Friday 3rd – Monday 27th August 2018 (not 15th), 14:00

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