Tom Mansfield, our director in the UK, writes about making theatre for the digital age.
I’m sitting on a train on the way back home from Birmingham, where I’ve been directing a production of Caryl Churchill’s 2012 play Love and Information for the Birmingham University Drama Department. In between rehearsals, I’ve been thinking about all our plans for Phone Home. Michael, Yannis and I have been swapping emails about workshops and research; I’ve been checking in with our writer, Zodwa; and producer Emma has been putting together a new wave of funding applications. Quite rightly, we’ve been spending a lot of time on this blog writing about the stories that Phone Home needs to tell – the experiences of migrants and especially refugees in Europe at the moment – and how we’re working with our participants to get to know them and their experiences better. I’m really excited about all of that work – and Michael has been sharing his practice here on the blog – but today I’d like to take some time out and think about one of my favourite things, dramatic structure.
Love and Information is, for me, one of the most exciting pieces of theatre I’ve seen about what it’s like to live in the age of information overload – a time in which we’re overwhelmed with information about the world, and delighted to share our most intimate moments on social media with friends, strangers, and people we knew from primary school and haven’t seen for a decade. On the one hand, we’ve never been able to access so much information about the world, or about each other. On the other hand, we’re saturated with stuff – cat videos, arguments about flags and profile pictures, critiques of Western foreign policy, adverts for Adele’s new album – and yet I still can’t look at you and know what’s inside your brain. How can we separate the signal from the noise? And how much do we really know one another?
Many of us feel that we’re living in an increasingly fragmented reality, and that’s what Love and Information portrays. Churchill has written nearly fifty scenes, some comprising five minutes of dialogue and others only half a sentence long. Although most of the text is laid out in seven parts, the scenes in every part can be performed in any order, and other scenes are designed to be randomly dropped in at any point in the play. There’s a huge range of emotional tones, and a vast array of characters. The questions start small and get bigger – from can we share a secret via how do we know what we think we know to do we really know what we think we know to do we know anything at all – and the stakes get higher and higher as the piece goes on. In the final scene, titled Facts, the characters ask questions of one another and they know all the answers, until one asks another ‘Do you love me’ – and the other person has no idea how to respond. The genius of the scene is that, when you research the questions, you realise that all the answers are entirely made-up – the ‘facts’ aren’t facts at all.
Love and Information is a structural model that I’m very interested in for Phone Home. It’s a demanding play to watch, never mind to direct – just remembering what scene was coming next could be a challenge in the early run-throughs – but it’s also playful and very funny. The kaleidoscopic nature of the play means that it allows us to consider the ways in which living in a digitised world pervades each part of our being. In some scenes this theme is directly addressed; in others it’s submerged behind the detail of the scene, and only reveals itself at moments. And while it’s not explicitly a political play, power relationships are crucial in pretty much every moment of the piece.
In Phone Home, the subjects we’re tackling are equally huge – the influx of refugees into Europe, the way we relate to migrants within the EU and from outside it, the varying attitudes of the people, politicians and media in each of our three countries. While other plays, such as our own Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives, tell individual stories to compelling effect, the very geography of our project demands a broader approach. Love and Information has more than fifty scenes – each of which tells a different story, sometimes in a single line of text. It’s one, potentially very exciting, way of telling the larger story of Phone Home.