Paradigm Shift: Making Theatre with Social Media
Danielle Le Saux-Farmer*
In The Society of the Spectacle, first published in French in 1967, Guy Debord has a sense that “the show is not a collection of images, but a social rapport between people, mediatized by images.” While his observations certainly ring true in the internet age, it is unlikely that Debord could have envisioned the extent to which mediatization has transformed the making of theatrical work. Social media, being at the heart of everyone’s day to day experience, is a central part of the two works under discussion here: Semblance (2013) and La fin de la fiction, which is currently in development and scheduled for production in 2022. This paper focuses on these two experiences of professional theatre-making and explores the distinction between creating work with social media and making work about social media, given how the complexities of it proliferate and change so rapidly.
Keywords: social media, theatre creation, process, product, collective
In The Society of the Spectacle, first published in French in 1967, Guy Debord argues that “the show is not a collection of images, but a social rapport between people, mediatized by images” (10). While his observations certainly ring true in the internet age, it is unlikely that Debord could have envisioned the extent to which mediatization would have transformed the making of theatrical work. Over the past eight years of creating new work as a theatre maker, I have experienced directly the intensification of the use of social media in collaborations with the theatre company Les Nuages en pantalon (founded in 2001), with whom I have worked closely. This company has a reputation for working with diverse artists to produce works that bear witness to contemporary cultural concerns facing humanity.
Inspired by the Cycle Repère method, made popular among French Canadian theatre makers in 1980, members of Les Nuages en pantalon devise theatre through a creation process of using material objects as “sensitive resources” through which they explore the relationship between the actor and the stage. Working with Les Nuages en pantalon, each artist participates in the writing, staging, set design and performance. Because of this creative method, all aspects of the production develop simultaneously, organically and over a long period of rehearsals, as opposed to more traditional approaches in making theatre work, often condensed to a few weeks.
Under discussion here are two projects on which I have collaborated that include an exploration of social media: Semblance, in 2013 and La fin de la fiction, which is currently in development and scheduled for production in 2022. Focusing on these experiences, this paper explores the distinction between making theatre work with social media and making theatre work about social media. I am particularly interested in three aspects that have emerged in these collaborative theatre projects: how social media has influenced the creation process, specifically within the context of collective creation; how social media influences the themes of our relationship to reality and fiction; and how social media foregrounds issues of time-sensitivity and relevance with respect to the use of such technology as a tool for making theatre.
The Creation Process – Integrating Social Media as a Scenic Metaphor
The Semblance project began its development in 2010 with the graduating class of the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Québec. As a class, we worked under the direction of the founder of Les Nuages en pantalon, Jean-Philippe Joubert, improvising and writing for three months, until opening of the production in December 2010. The creative process for this piece unfolded in a very short and intense time frame. It was based on collective improvisation and inspired in part by the Cycle Repère method. The fundamental question we discussed was: what is loneliness?
The result was a constellation of characters and situations dealing with different types of solitude and disconnectedness we encounter in a very digitally connected, but superficial, modern world. The central character, a commercial photographer in search of truth and authenticity, foregrounded a poetic shift from digital to film photography. When we reworked the piece in 2013 at the Périscope Theatre in Québec City, we had to reflect the changes in social media usage, and thus we rewrote certain characters to demonstrate how their dynamic online presence was in stark contrast to their real-life situations of being alone, lost and disconnected from others.
Integrating social media in the reworking of the play had profound effects both on the final performance, in terms of writing and staging, and on the creative process. One of things we realized early on was that we could no longer continue to improvise the development of new character arcs. As a group, we were accustomed to using active ways of developing scenes and dialogues. For example, we used improvisation to explore the story’s possibilities; a rule of thumb in the process was always “don’t talk about the idea—do it.” Yet, expressing a character’s inner life through social media, such as improvising someone scrolling through their Facebook feed, proved to be quite uninteresting to the performance we had in mind. However, when we staged the act of scrolling, with a projection of the content visible to the audience, the scene became dynamic.
Thinking about staging became a main focus of the process, which developed simultaneously with the writing of the scenes. In terms of process, then, we had to rethink how we were developing the stories. We were trying to remain instinctive, to avoid being too analytical, while, at the same time, the members of the creative team were exploring various social media platforms, quite disconnected from each other. Ironically, as artists of a collective creation, despite our best intentions, we often found ourselves becoming disengaged from the work and one another; a theme that developed further as the piece evolved.
Within this context of developing the 2013 version of the work, we used the same characters, but now they were much more connected to their social media profiles and were experiencing various forms of loneliness, grief and emptiness, desperately searching for human, real-life, connection. There were employees of a communications agency, for instance, who were in the process of launching the website of a self-help power couple. Indeed, in this version of Semblance the focus on photography really evolved into a theme of the tyranny of the image we project of ourselves, especially on social media platforms. Thus, social media was not only present in the production as a subject in certain storylines, but also as a scenic language. Different social media platforms were projected onto the walls of the space, allowing the audience to experience the characters’ sincere quests for meaning and connection in the face of loss and emptiness. As theatre critic Alain-Martin Richard put it, “all the characters in this multiplatform theatre are searching for their own identities, torn between a world of appearances and a world of flesh” (2017).
Reality and Fiction: Extending Characters into the Real Internet
For the 2013 production, we created an extension of Semblance that would exist beyond the time of the performance, into the space of the “real internet.” This idea of having an internet platform for a theatre production was not new and is now commonplace. But in this case, we used the internet extension to enhance the narrative, giving the fictional characters full-fledged social media profiles that the audience could scroll through outside of the performance, before or after the show.
We created a Tumblr profile for Fannie, the communications agent, obsessed with body image; clips on Vimeo for Simon, an actor looking for work; and Facebook profiles for the other characters. In creating what we called the show’s social media “periphery,” our goal was to offer the audience an opportunity to connect and interact with the characters beyond the time and space of the performance and experience them as if they were not fictional characters. One reviewer highlighted the truth/fiction dichotomy that this staging produced:
This strange theatre questions the place of reality/truth within reality, the place of the concrete in the virtual, inquires into the notion of consciousness/awareness. The tools that mankind has invented to tell its stories and define itself find here their expression as well as their limits. But they are between the theatre and the lobby, between inside and outside the building, between direct contact and mediation through social media, between the degrees of a fabricated image (chemical or digital) and its resonance on our identity—all this defines a world that seems familiar, yet quite disconcerting. The characters of Semblance, well before this official exhibit, already existed in another space of reality. On websites, we can follow their careers, read their blogs, watch their videos, visit the marketing agency.Richard 2017
Ultimately, we faced a serious challenge: we asked how we can better build the online lives of our fictional characters? We attempted to create intricate, interesting, dense and coherent content, so that these lives could exist and be somewhat believable. We extended them into the outside of the stage production and into the social media realm.
In a traditional theatre performance, what the audience receives is typically limited to what the artists have chosen to have them hear and see in a fixed amount of time and space. Yet if we give our audience a chance to navigate the Internet and scroll through a blog, they will have time to delve into the content at their leisure. This realization evolved into us having to write very furnished, detailed backstories for these characters, complete with photos and videos that would appear to have been created over a real time-span of years and not a few months of writing. So, the task of creating these online profiles not only because colossal from a creative and dramaturgical perspective, but it also revealed the limits of fiction. These characters do not, in fact, have full, complex human lives—they exist only in the world of the play.
Further, unlike corporate creative teams or marketing firms, we did not have the means as a collective, in terms of time or funding, to continually update and develop these fictional online personas. The impossibility of this task for our small production team left us as artists with a concept that did not properly “land.” It was a great experiment for the team, but as the social media periphery project took on a life of its own, this time-consuming and labour-intensive undertaking yielded insufficient results.
At the same time, the online portion of the creation, despite threatening to overtake us as writers, did correspond to what we wanted to say. It revealed a bigger truth about the internet and social media: that it is a space where real people interact in virtual ways, and fictional characters cannot sustain that. And despite our general feeling that social media is superficial, real people using it in 2013 were trying to connect and express themselves online. Now, in 2020, with the prevalence of fake social media accounts and a growing corporate presence on the platforms, the stakes have changed again.
Moving beyond Themes of Online Superficiality: La fin de la fiction
The challenges of sustaining a fictional character’s online presence, I believe, would be tenfold if we had tried this concept in 2020. In 2013, as we were reworking the piece, social media was gaining momentum, but it was still a relatively new phenomena. Mostly, it posed questions of what image you would present to the world online as opposed to what you are actually experiencing. Since then, social media has evolved, and is continuing to do so, and we have now gone well beyond the simplistic dichotomy of perception versus reality.
Truth vs. Fiction and the End of Fiction
Five years after Semblance, I was invited by Jean-Phillipe Joubert to collaborate again with Les Nuages en pantalon, this time as Artistic Director of Théâtre Catapulte, a French-language theatre located in Ottawa, Canada, whose mandate over its 28-year history has evolved to support the collective creation of new work by established and emerging artists.
We began developing a new piece, La fin de la fiction (The End of Fiction), focusing on the topic of post-truth politics and polarization on social media platforms. Like many people since the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the U.S., we were both amazed and appalled at the way social media platforms were changing. The title La fin de la fiction was chosen to indicate how the lines between truth and fiction are increasingly blurred, especially when we examine how social media is deployed.
Rather than exploring how fake social media profiles are circulated, we are now researching how certain conspiracy theories, which emerged during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, used platforms like YouTube, zombie Twitter and Facebook accounts to influence the outcome of that election.
Starting with phenomena like the digital echo chambers (Flaxman et al. 298–320), we have expanded our research to consider the effects of such incidents as the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data breaches, Russian meddling in many elections around the globe through manipulation of social media, and concerted efforts by a number of organizations to sow discord and chaos between opposing social groups and political movements. One thing that is clear with this new paradigm of information exchange is the speed with which the uses and abuses of social media continue to intensify in the dissemination of (mis)information in the “real” world.
Time-Sensitivity: Staying Relevant with Rapidly Changing Platforms
In my experience with Les Nuages en pantalon, as well as with my own theatre-making practice, the creation process from development to opening night can take a minimum of three years to produce well-researched, factually rigorous content with artistic merit. Such a process is a temporal challenge when the subject matter is social media. Already, in the two years of research we have completed to date, we have deepened the study of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube by simply keeping up with updates on a regular basis. Our findings continue to change rapidly, particularly in ways that impact how these platforms are used and by whom.
As users have adapted to the changes in social media platforms, our public institutions have also had to recognize the monopoly held by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft (GAFAM), and have realized—through incidents like the Cambridge Analytica data breach—just how problematic it is to have so much social and political power contained and controlled in this fashion. Further, in 2020, unlike when we first dabbled in such technology in 2013, governmental structures are beginning to legislate how social media platforms can be used for particular social and political ends.
In 2018, when we worked on La fin de la fiction, our aim was to build a cahier de création (creation handbook) as our reference guide for writing on the topic of Russian political interference. After two years of workshops and development, we have realized that this subject matter is so dense that improvisation cannot be the entry point into creating this piece. Moreover, the topic of Russian meddling with the U.S. elections through social media has become so ubiquitous that telling its story theatrically has lost any significance it might once have had. We realized that Facebook’s undeniable presence in the global, political landscape was no longer the focus of the project; and thus, we decided to explore such complex notions like algorithms, feedback loops and data points to demonstrate that it is becoming more and more difficult to separate truth from fiction, both in our everyday lives and on stage.
Creation Process: Finding the Theatre in the Algorithm
Today, we continue looking for new ways to stage our relationships with the social media platforms. These relationships constitute a “sensitive resource” for making theatre as understood by the Cycle Repère method. For example, in our work today, we investigate how we can better stage polarization of an audience that reflects the way we have become polarized as social media users within a context that examines how conspiracy theories circulate on these platforms. Regardless of what ultimate shape this project takes, the result of what we have learned so far about the complexity of social media platforms has brought us from showing them onstage in the lives of the characters to providing an opportunity for our spectators to experience social media inner workings and mechanisms.
It is an incredibly exciting project to be working on, even though the ground is constantly shifting beneath us. Every four or five months, we come back to the research and find that we are spending more time refreshing the information than deciding how to use it to create a piece of theatre. We suspect that this constant back-and-forth between the source material and the creative process will impact the form of the piece. In other words, in the same way that social media is a multifaceted, continuously evolving phenomenon, developing this show has become a self-reflexive commentary on the source material.
In La fin de la fiction, the process and the product are inextricably intertwined, as we aim to create a piece of theatre about social media within a society of spectacle increasingly impacted by blurred lines of reality and fiction online. This way it seems to me we are getting closer to Debord’s statement that when “the spectacle, taken as a whole, is both and at once, the result and the existing method of production as a project. It is not a supplement to the real world, a decoration that is added. It is the heart of unreality within real society” (Debord 11). So, as with our earlier collective creation, which began in 2010, the members of this creative team are using theatre to ask simple question: what is the human, emotional response to this new paradigm of a society built with and around social media?
All translations from French to English are by the author
Debord, Guy. La Société de Spectacle. 3rd ed., Les Éditions Gallimard, 1967.
Flaxman, Seth, et al. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption.” Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 80, no. S1, 2016, pp. 298–320.
Richard, Alain-Martin. “Semblance: Comment ressembler à notre image. ” Revue Jeu, 21 Mar. 2013. Accessed 27 Feb. 2020.
*Danielle Le Saux-Farmer is an actress, director, translator and theatre maker. She obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Ottawa’s Theatre department in 2008. She then completed training as an actress at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Québec in 2011, in Québec City, where she worked as a theatre maker for the first years of her professional career. In 2017, she was appointed Artistic Director of Théâtre Catapulte, a French-language theatre company in Ottawa.
Copyright © 2020 Danielle Le Saux-Farmer
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.