On the Real: Fatebook and Whit MacLaughlin

What is the nature of the interactions we experience in ‘cyberspace’ and ‘real space’? Where does this experience reside in the individual?

I encountered Fatebook via a tweet from director Whit MacLaughlin. I was drawn to the audio-video installation on the website, a praiseworthy creation in its own right, but also a visual metaphor for the ambitious, cross-disciplinary performance project that lies beneath. A later tweet connected me with one of the Fatebook cast members, and before I knew it I had become both audience and participant in this two-part ‘live’ performance that plays out in ‘cyberspace’ and ‘real space’.

Fatebook character 'Anita Prowler'

Conceived and created by Whit MacLaughlin and his award winning Philadelphia-based company, New Paradise Laboratories, Fatebook is a meditation on fate or destiny as seen through the lens of digital communication. The online strand of the project was launched in July this year and follows the lives of 13 characters as they interact with audience members across multiple social media networks. Their stories evolve – with directorial input from MacLaughlin – through a new media narrative of Twitter and Facebook updates, YouTube videos and photos on Flickr; documenting scenes from their everyday lives in Philadelphia.

Each of these 13 online odysseys is heading for offline collision at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September later this summer. The real space performance is set to bring even more digitalia to bear. A myriad of screens, projectors and live video feeds will transform the space into an epic mediatised environment in which the borders between digital and analogue, live and recorded, fact and fiction merge in a “momentous night—the Fatebook party—where time stops, computers crash…and nobody can say what’s real.”

After an in-depth Skype exchange with MacLaughlin it became clear that here was an experiment at the bleeding edge of digital performance, evolving in sync with developments in social media. I wanted to find out more about the artistic and logistical challenges involved in creating performance online, to extend my ongoing exploration of performance work crossing the digital-analogue divide and to take stock (in a performative context) of terms in frequent but awkward circulation on the Web. Terms such as real (real time, real space, real life), physical (physical space, physical world), space (cyberspace, real space), and the fact/fiction binary.

Andrew Eglinton: Where did the idea for Fatebook originate from?

Whit MacLaughlin: Around two years ago I was observing the effect of social media on young people. There seemed to be an encroaching difference in the way the imagination worked in this space. I was also hoping to participate in the front line of experiential investigations into the way ‘cyberspace’ and ‘real space’ interact in the imagination. What is the nature of the interactions we experience in both spaces? Where does this experience reside in the individual? I became interested in devising a piece that made use of the style or nature of the experience in both media.

I also watched people having sex in a public online space and was interested in how sexual function was stimulated by almost pure, prefrontal, ‘real time’ stimulation, as opposed to the long-standing tradition of literary pornography.

Around about the same time, I saw a performance of a ‘movie’ at the Ars Electronica conference in Linz, Austria. The piece wasn’t terribly interesting, but one great moment happened that set off an alarm in me; the piece was broadcast through a variety of media, but one of the actors suddenly walked through the space we were inhabiting, and I was struck by the way that I responded so differently to the actor in cyber expressions as opposed to real expressions. I liked the smash up and that was the genesis of Fatebook.

I felt that many of the online films and ’shows’ had not really translated the medium away from film and TV into the new zone. They still seemed cinematic. So I was interested in investigating the possibility of narrative that was interactive; both inside the medium, and then across platforms, so to speak.

Andrew: You mention a perceived difference in the way the imagination works in online spaces, what sort of difference(s)? Have you been able to pinpoint anything in particular?

Whit: Well, it’s conjecture and unscientific at this point, but I was struck by how powerful and immediate text scrolling across a computer screen could be. I began to think about teenagers and how ‘personal’ their conversations are in texting and IMing. I felt that the overall tenor of online ‘conversation’ was really close to the atmosphere of pillow talk. Whispering into someone else’s ear. Short phrases. Immediate and almost telepathic. Not couched in metaphor. Not carefully articulated. Even with young adults, it was bedroom to bedroom.

Andrew: I want to pick up on your experience of watching people having sex in a public online space and interacting with viewers via text chat. What aspect(s) or characteristic(s) of that real time environment did you find stimulating?

Whit: It was the sense of something unfolding in the ‘present’ that was an exhibitionistic expression of intimacy. There were also no physical inhibitions, and this is linked to the phenomenon of physical safety and emotional vulnerability in cyberspace. It’s a paradigm that I find very interesting. Young people are especially vulnerable to emotional cruelty online. Not being wary of it and not understanding the intense ‘publicness’ of action in cyberspace.

Andrew: So these fragments, these influences and ideas formed the basis for a devised performance project. What was the first practical step towards realising Fatebook and when did it take place?

Whit: I approached a large theatre company in the US that I have worked with before as a commissioning organization. They are into creating experimental work for young audiences, which I initially thought was a prime audience for the piece, and we agreed to proceed. So we embarked on a year and a half series of workshops with a cast of teenagers.

I started to envision a piece that involved real time online interactions that would bring physical life directly up against cyberspace life; a narrative form that would simply highlight the properties of each. People are so passionate about their online hangouts, and I just wanted to see what would happen.

So I interviewed a number of young adults, put together a cast and started to work on the shape of the experience. The project was going to have a technological component. We dreamed big at the time — we were into developing a kind of real time networked approach to the unfolding of the piece.

It soon became clear that there would need to be two shows: an online show that would proceed for a certain amount of time before a real space show took place; and the real space show would interact with the cyberspace one – hopefully in a seamless manner.

Then, just as we were going into production mode, the economic crisis hit, and the project was axed. So I had to come up with alternative ways to structure and execute the piece that I could manage within my own resources.

Andrew: You say you “just wanted to see what would happen”. Did you pitch that as a project outcome in your brief to the commissioning organization? In other words, was it made explicit from the outset that this work would be wholly experimental? That there were perhaps few precedents at the time?

Whit: Yes. Everyone was marginally comfortable with that. We had also hired a consulting firm to help us figure out the web experience, because not much existed by way of templates. There were going to be aspects of the piece that were very challenging to any organization of any size. Paradigm shifts that I saw happening before our very eyes that most theatre organizations aren’t nimble enough to put into action.

Andrew: Such as?

Whit: Well, marketing for example. Who is it in a theatre organization that tells the story? I began to see that in cyberspace, the employees of an arts organization – the production team, the administration, the artistic leadership, the artists etc. – are the prime communication agents.

Theatre is still used to creating a product, a thing, a production, and then hiring marketers, who shape the ’story’ of the thing and try to sell it to the public. In cyberspace, the artistic director, for instance, has direct access to the people who form the ‘audience’ for the piece. But artistic personnel are notoriously fastidious about talking directly to the public. It’s a status drop or something. They think of their work as the primary focus of their relationship to an audience. But in cyberspace, that relationship is begging to be up-ended.

I saw an opportunity to build a community, where the marketing of the piece was indistinguishable from its content. So I began to say things like “its marketing is its content” which some people found disturbing; as if that couldn’t be the content of a theatre piece. Our partner organization found this aspect particularly challenging.

Andrew: So by virtue of its existence in cyberspace, the company was marketing the production at the same time that it was creating the story and characters for the piece?

Whit: I tend to describe the creative process of this piece as writing a novel on the fly that you are shooting at the same time as a film, that you are broadcasting as soon as you have the dailies, and rehearsing after you take the curtain up!

Andrew: Nice. As you mentioned earlier, there’s also a ‘physical world’ component to Fatebook, the show that will take place in September as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Have you resorted back to ‘traditional’ marketing roles and structures for that?

Whit: We do have plans to undertake traditional marketing techniques at the same time as we carry out the online component. There have been ramifications to that. I am now writing grant applications with slightly grandiose claims about reducing the normal ratios of production to marketing costs. People are very hopeful about the efficacy of communication in cyberspace, but they are also increasingly wary of slight changes in the atmosphere of online communication and it’s almost a totally commercial zone.

Andrew: Is there an absence of morality in virtual space? A relinquishing of responsibility?

Whit: I think that personal responsibility as a concept is in flux because of the interaction of fact and fiction in cyberspace. For instance, people have been entrapped for interacting sexually with under aged youth by policemen posing as youth. It’s difficult to tell where the crime really is. It seems to be an Orwellian sort of thought crime. And people have told me about relationships they’ve had with someone they’ve never met or seen online. They wonder if they are having an affair. I say, “do you have ’sex’?” They say, “well, yes, I guess”. And I say “you’re having an affair”. There’s just so much room for manoeuvring.

Andrew: I’m interested in this notion of blurring fact and fiction online, particularly in relation to building characters that inhabit social media space (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr etc.). Could you describe the character development process and your online relationship with the actors as the director?

Whit: I should point out that the 13 actors working on Fatebook have never all been together in the same room at the same time – until this coming Monday when we start work on the real space show. The actors have devised characters whole cloth out of their own lives. So much of the content for this show is autobiographical. I have been steering the development of character – as co-author – remotely. Facebook and Twitter have been our rehearsal space so far. We created parameters, and identities – in collaboration – and then started interacting in these spaces in a variety of ways.

Andrew: Could you give an example of a parameter?

Whit: I watched and commented individually as I was devising ways of guiding the actors into the situations I envisioned. I wanted certain characters to be ’supernatural’ for example, but I didn’t tell them, I didn’t want them to ‘hit the nail on the head’ so to speak. So I guided them towards certain things by inference. Soon, one character, for instance, was devising a ‘revirginization’ procedure. Eventually, I took almost five months of online interactions and then started compiling, editing, and rewriting.

Ame Montoya - responding to the theme 'Passing Out'

Ame Montoya - responding to the theme 'Passing Out'. Photo © Matt Saunders

Andrew: I want to pick up on the term ‘real time’. We’ve used it several times now. It’s a term I associate with ‘real time Web’, often used to suggest a demarcation between a static text-based era of the Internet and the current (instantaneous) global communication platform that it has become. What does ‘real time’ mean in the context of Fatebook?

Whit: To me, it means I can communicate with you without making an appointment. We don’t need to get our bodies anywhere and we just pick up where we left off, whenever we want. It’s realer than real time. I’m not sure whether that describes the actuality of real time online, or perhaps more the experience of it.

Andrew: On the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival website Fatebook is described thus: “The action plays out within a labyrinth of screens displaying the shifting cityscapes and intimate spaces in which the characters live. Twelve projectors and live video feeds blur the line between the digital environment and the physical one.” What are the tensions in shifting between digital and physical interfaces in this performance? What does the physical dimension bring to the performance?

Whit: Well, that’s the point, I think. There will be such an immersion in illusion that I’m not sure the participant will necessarily know what is live and what is canned. The environments well be established then mutated. Characters will be communicating across the room, in ways that it will not be clear how much is live. There will also be live green-screened broadcasting. The whole milieu of the performance is illusion. Then there will be a complete meltdown of the piece that will plunk us all into real space and we’ll suddenly see and feel the unmediated room and hear unmediated sound.

Andrew: What do you hope will emerge at that moment of real space recognition?

Whit: I don’t know. I actually think that presence in real space is the holy grail of experience, and proximity against the odds is the miracle. So, I’m not sure what cyber proximity is going to do with the traditional structures of meaning and what cyber availability is going to do to our physical metaphors. I feel like I just want, at this point, to highlight the differences and make them really salient.

Andrew: Thank you very much for your time and insight into the workings of Fatebook.

Whit MacLaughlin is the OBIE and Barrymore Award-winning Artistic Director of New Paradise Laboratories. He has conceived, directed, and designed 9 original performance works with the company since its inception in 1996. Prior to his founding of NPL, he was a charter member, for 17 years, of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, originally under the artistic direction of famed theatre luminary Alvina Krause. (Read more »)


The 13 Fatebook characters. Photo © Matt Saunders.

Comments

9 comments. Add your own »

  1. James T says:

    Thanks, this is a really good interview. The section on marketing was of particular interest to me as I work in theatre admin (marketing) in a venue here in Birmingham. We recently hired a social media consultant to advise on making the most of the Web to draw in audiences. Your project takes that experience a lot further, as it lives and breathes in the social media space. In that sense it’s a very interesting case study.

    I wonder though, if we were talking about marketing a strictly real world show, whether it would be possible to apply the same tactics of online audience interaction? It’s a rhetorical question really, because I’m almost sure it’s possible

    The biggest problem, and you mention it in your interview, is getting the creative team to get involved. If it was part of their contract to devote x amount of time to talking about the show via social media during rehearsals and in the run up to the performance, then it might work. As it stands, actors and directors are generally not paid enough to make this extra function worthwhile.

    Right now our use of the Web as promotion tool is in publishing video teasers of our shows, interviews with performers, directors and writers on our blog, but that’s about it. When it comes to experimenting with new media, something I’d love to do, we face a fair bit of red-tape from senior staff. Sadly, consultant or no consultant, they just don’t get it.

  2. Great interview. Whit always has a visionary take on the performer/audience dynamic and I think he’s way ahead of the curve on this one. Can’t wait to see it. Philly’s Live Arts Fest looks to be phenomenal this year.

  3. I liked the sound of this project from its portrayal in this interview, but when it came to taking a step further and exploring the Fatebook website and then some of the Character material on Facebook and Twitter etc, all I found were a bunch of teens pumping out statements about the woes of everyday life – which is fine, but it’s hardly the stuff of ground-breaking theatre.

    Sure, I get the point about experimenting with the medium and all that, but if we’re talking theatre here, which it seems we are, then what consideration is being given to the audience in this experiment? How is this fragmented, cross-platform, ’stream’ of micro updates generating substance of dramatic interest?

    Wouldn’t it be fairer to say that the online element of this play is more about publicity and generating content for the ‘real’ performance, i.e. the show in Philadelphia in September? Don’t get me wrng, Im not saying you can’t have theatre online, I’m just saying that there has to be a better, more inductive way of presenting this.

    For example, why hasn’t there been a centralised feed pulling all Fatebook content together on a page on the website? And that page lists all the characters at a glance, and the archive stretches back to the beginning? Yes it would be alot of data, but at least you’d have a kind of narrative for your audience to get stuck into. As it is, it seems like the ‘audience’ has to spend hours, finding, subscribing, navigating between ‘characters’, and frankly i just gave up.

    But despite these misgivings, I’m still interested to hear about how the show unfolds in September. On paper it sounds like a good project, but I get the feeling that it’s too experimental and too unfocused for it’s own good.

  4. Hi James, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the interview of interest. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in talking about applying Fatebook’s online community building tactics to offline performance. The door’s wide open in UK theatre.

    Venues/companies/institutions have by and large adopted online advertising for their shows, whether it’s through publishing promotional YouTube videos, running a company blog, tweeting about, Facebook group, Flickr photo stream etc. etc., but what many have yet to grapple with is taking a step further and employing a member of staff to engage one-to-one with their online audiences.

    That doesn’t just mean singling people out on Twitter or Facebook and sending them promotional messages, that means actually taking the time to talk to them, to listen to their feedback on a particular show, to ask what they think of the venue, how it could be improved, what they think of ticket prices, theatre access, programming etc. etc. It means actually caring about who their audiences are and what they have to say.

  5. Wendy, thanks for stopping by. I assume you’ll be covering the Live Arts Festival? Will that be on your blog, or for the Inquirer?

  6. “it’s hardly the stuff of ground-breaking theatre”

    Wouldn’t that be jumping to conclusions given that a) the project has yet to run its course, b) you “gave up” and c) you have not seen the live installation part of this project?

    “How is this fragmented, cross-platform, ’stream’ of micro updates generating substance of dramatic interest?”

    To me it’s quite obvious that the Internet is loaded with “substance of dramatic interest”; from video clips, photos and audio recordings to text based conversations, writings, archives and reprints, it’s a vast source of dramatic substance.

    The problem, and you touch on it later on in your comment, is one of filtration. How do you go about selecting and editing this content into dramatic form? Ultimately you will need a strategy and you will have to narrow the playing field by applying a set of parameters. In the Fatebook case, the choice of 13 characters, the choice of platforms, the organisational structure of the online project, the fact that the characters hadn’t met in the ‘physical world’ prior to embarking on the project, the presence of a director, guiding the characters, all these are parameters that aim to nurture and perhaps intensify the dramatic substance.

    What’s particularly important about Fatebook is that more than speculate about the how’s and why’s of using social media for a Web-based performance, it’s actually doing it. The project is forging its own way through this nebulous field of data, negotiating new beahvioural patterns, facing new creative challenges and hopefully expanding our understanding of what might constitute “substance of dramatic interest”.

  7. Covering it for the Inquirer, and if I get an hour to myself, for my blog. My (very, very brief) review of Fatebook is in the Inquirer today.

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Info and Credits

To begin your Fatebook experience either visit the website fatebooktheshow.com or go to Facebook and friend Tanson Rothko the 'cyber guide'.

Visit the New Paradise Laboratories website.

Read Philadelphia-based theatre critic Wendy Rosenfield's take on Fatebook.

All photographs used in this article © Matt Saunders.

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