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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 10:39 a.m.
Style & Culture

‘eStranged’ play displays innovative storytelling elements

Christopher Burns

For The Maine Campus

Today, nearly everyone is plugged into the great social media Moloch, from Facebook to Google+. In fact, if someone says they do not have a Facebook, they are met with the same incredulity as someone who does not have Internet. “How can you not have a Facebook?” they ask. “How do you keep in touch with people?” Not having a Twitter or Google+ is the same as being anti-social.

But is that so? Perhaps the gradual and complete mediation of all experience and social interaction produces negative consequences. In a realm where we can say or do anything we want, pretending to be whoever we wish is leading down a path that ends in a complete separation and estrangement from all forms of social institution and a deep, incurable solipsism.

All of these questions are examined in “eStranged,” a telematic production by the Intermedia MFA program in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire Department of Theatre and Dance. The production showed from Wednesday, Nov. 20 to Sunday, Nov. 24, and was broadcast simultaneously at the IMRC Center in Stewart Hall and the University of New Hampshire campus.

Utilizing a combination of video and audio streaming, and social media, actors at both universities participated in the production that is based on Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” “eStranged” was written by David Kaye, chair of UNH’s Department of Theatre and Dance, and N.B. Aldrich, associate professor of new media at UMaine.

A young woman discovers that her mother has died. When she died is unknown. It may have been “today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I don’t know.” Condolences fill her Facebook page, all of which are disregarded, and she sighs. She goes from home to work and home again. While at home, she explores the Internet, watching videos and looking at images, which flash by on a large screen behind her.

Soon things become muddled as new characters appear on the screen behind her, responding and acting on her whims, it would appear. Tension builds as sensuality begets violence, and whatever connection or control the woman exercised over these digital bodies vanishes. Ultimately what becomes of her is not disclosed. Perhaps she is left to a life inextricably tied to the internet; she can longer distinguish between her real or digital self, permanently eStranged.

The medium of telematic performance is relatively new. So much so that few conventions have been established, giving authors such as Kaye and Aldrich great breadth for exploration and experimentation. Certainly they use this to their advantage for exploring social issues around social media, as well as consequences for selfhood and identity.

Central to the concept and tension in the performance is the dialect between the real and the virtual self. Behind this construction is the idea that online anyone can be anybody; that the restrictions and denials encountered daily that keeps someone, like the young woman, from being say a manager at a sales firm or lawyer. The disappointments of everyday life can be escaped. Online she can construct whatever identity she wants and can be that for other people.

This creates an ontological dilemma. Which of her two selves is authentic? Of concern as well is whether the browser or social media socialite understands the deluge of information at the tips of their fingers. This question is answered in the pairing of sensuality and violence in the performance. The young woman at one point watches an exhibitionist video of herself, almost lost as though unable to draw the connection between the woman she sees on the screen and her sense of identity. Throughout the performance the line remains unclear and few indications are given to the audience what is going through her mind. She remains throughout reticent and taciturn.

The performance is constructed on the ground of obscurity. Being broadcast simultaneously in two locations more than 200 miles apart, created at least three different performances; one from the perspective of Orono, one from that of New Hampshire, and the other the two as a whole. Both authors appear to desire the ambiguity of meaning and context in the performance(s). Certainly it is tenuous ground to build on.

However, the payoff though is well worth the moments of confusion. As the young woman struggles to understand the nature of the images she sees and her relationship to them, the audience follows right alongside her. It throws the audience into the seat of mediated experience; that by trying to create experience the very fundamental understanding of what is happening is obfuscated. By allowing the meaning and context of the events of the performance be imbued with ambiguity, “eStranged” succeeds in one of its goals, which is sparking a conversation about the role of social media in everyday life and what its consequences are for art. There are no easy answers, but unless the questions are asked and attention turned to the very fabric of experience, we remain divorced from the nature of our existence and identity.