On the Real: Fatebook and Whit MacLaughlin

This interview was originally published on London Theatre Blog on August 1 2009. An archive of London Theatre Blog is available here.

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’.

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.

A scene from the 2009 production of Fatebook in Philadelphia.

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.

Ame Montoya – responding to the theme ‘Passing Out’. Photo © Matt Saunders

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.

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.

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