A chat with Playwright, Richard Jordan…
Set to become one of the most talked about new plays of the year, Machina runs May 8 – 24 2014 so if it interests you, better book for it! And look YOU’RE ONLINE so it will certainly interest you.
One month ago, David Sergeant made the ultimate commitment to social media, choosing to forever separate mind and body by uploading his consciousness into social networking site Machina. An experimental and irreversible new process known as ‘going inside’, the user discards their need for a physical body and attains a kind of digital immortality in the cloud.
Now, as David’s family, friends and ex-lovers struggle to come to terms with his physical absence, questions are being asked about why this promising young man committed the equivalent of social suicide. Did he go willingly? Or was he pushed? David’s mother is determined to find out, even if it means reaching out to her son from the other side…
Set in an uncomfortably familiar world of carefully-constructed online profiles and disposable digital relationships, Machina is a bold and ambitious new play by Richard Jordan (25 Down).
Now that you’ve booked your tix, you can settle in with a beverage and enjoy some background on Machina and its creator, Richard Jordan.
Mister, The Courier Mail says, “Jordan has his finger on the pulse of his generation.” I think this must be true because your new play, Machina, takes the topics of disconnect and social media to a whole new level! Why did you have to write this play?
Around the time of my last play (25 Down), I started having a very negative reaction to Facebook. (I think everyone’s gone through this at some point!). I’d been a Facebook member for a few years by then, and by 2009 / 2010 the novelty had begun to wear off. I felt like I was receiving press releases from my friends every day about how amazing their lives supposedly were, and it just made me feel isolated and depressed about my own life. So I actually deleted my original Facebook account, and stayed off for about 18 months. During that time I moved to Melbourne – where I knew a grand total of two people – and attempted to become a different person. I was trying to escape my own skin, I guess, and I used the internet to do that – to try on different virtual personas, and binge on YouTube or news sites for hours on end, sponging up information. It was a horrible 18 months, really, but so much of Machina comes out of that period of my life.
The other interesting thing about the experience was that as soon as I rejoined Facebook (in 2012), it was like I magically existed again – friends and acquaintances who had completely forgotten about me now remembered I was alive. And it made me ponder how much we rely on the internet to “exist” now, at least in the minds of other people.
David chooses an eternity in the cloud rather than a lifetime on Earth. Is that a decision based on personal ponderings?
Yes it is, definitely. After 25 Down I lapsed into a really horrible period of depression – the type of depression that weighs you down, that you feel on your chest and your shoulders as a physical sensation. I hated myself so intensely that I started to not feel safe in my own skin. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to be myself either. So the notion of a virtual eternity “in the cloud” – away from my body, away from my pain, and removed from all emotions – was quite an appealing thought at the time.
Aside from that, though, I’ve always felt somewhat “disconnected” from my body, and I wondered if my use of technology was aiding that somehow.
How does the concept of “social suicide” in real life weigh up against absence from online networking sites?
I suppose the adage seems to be true now – “if you’re not online, you don’t exist”. But interestingly, even a person’s bodily death has no effect on their virtual presence – all of our data, our comments, our banter, our photographs will be stored on some server in North Dakota long after we’ve perished. And in some ways that’s a comforting thought, and in other ways a terrifying one.
How disconnected do you think we really are in 2014? How do you stay connected to “the real world”?
Incredibly disconnected. You look at any given bus stop, train carriage, library, park bench – nobody is present in the world that they actually live in. They’re present in the device that they’re holding. And I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, or a scaremonger, or anything like that – and God knows I do all of that stuff too – but if a bunch of aliens came down to Earth and watched us all buried in our phones, they’d surely be scratching their heads! Our technology has become all consuming. And I wonder what that signifies about our culture.
Often, I think I’m the one with my head in the phone. Do you have some hot tips for living real life as it happens? Or, more specifically, hot tips for turning off devices?
No hot tips, no! I’m as addicted as anyone. Although, interestingly, I developed a bad case of RSI in my forearms at the end of 2012 which is only just easing off – and all from overusing my forearm extensor muscles with constant typing and texting. It was so debilitating that I actually got rid of my iPhone for about 14 months and got an old fashioned flip phone instead, just so I had no temptation to go online when I was out and about! During that year I read books again, I looked out the window, and I listened to music. It was like the old days. But of course it was annoying too – no Google Maps, no access to emails, none of the stuff you take for granted with a smartphone. Needless to say I have an iPhone again, and all the old bad habits have come back! But I am more mindful about giving it a rest from time to time – if only to look after my arms.
Can you talk about connection and addiction? What do you think are some of the effects of our addiction to social media on family and friends?
I guess just ignoring the present moment, more than anything. We privilege the virtual over the physical all the time. “Just a minute, I have to respond to this.” But that physical moment is never going to happen again. Ever. And it’s the only thing that actually makes us human beings. Everything else is data.
Can you talk about your creative process? Do you have a magic formula for writers?
My process keeps evolving and changing. I like to try to new things. But with this play I did have a very specific way of working – almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
The play actually began as a series of 11 disparate scenes that I collected together under the name dis/connect: Scenes for Machines and Humans. In September 2011 I was an Artist-in-Residence at Marrickville Council in Sydney. It’s a fantastic program – they basically give you a space (rent-free) above an old clock tower for a month, and you can make any kind of work you like. The only condition is it has to somehow engage with the local community. So I pitched the idea of investigating how Marrickville residents were coping with new technologies, something I’d wanted to write about for a while. During the month I travelled to each of the 11 suburbs in the council area, and would write a scene based on my experiences in that suburb. In one suburb, for example, I went to a Computers for Beginners class at the local library, and observed three middle-aged women so terrified of the machines in front of them they thought a wrong button might cause an explosion. I expanded on this and wrote a scene that ended up in dis/connect, and is now the first scene of Machina. The rest of the process after Marrickville continued in a similar fashion – writing random scenes, and then making connections – who is this character? Does this person know the people in the other scene? What is their relationship? Etc. In this way the writing came from a very organic place – my right brain leaving clues for me, and my left brain making sense of them. It has to be this way for me. If I ever sit down and go “I’m going to write about intimacy and it will start like this and end like this”, the result is always clichéd and obvious – something I’ve seen a million times before. Right brain writing is more dangerous – and often more time consuming – but it’s always more rewarding. You never know what’s inside.
How did winning the Premier’s Drama Award for 25 Down help you as a writer?
I think the biggest thing it did for me was give me confidence. Every writer is riddled with self-doubt, and I’m no exception. But when someone gives you an award, and puts the play on, and you garner good reviews – you do start to think: “Maybe I’m not so completely hopeless at this.” It keeps you going.
What can playwrights do to get their work read, published and produced?
That’s the eternal question! And unfortunately in this country, it’s particularly difficult. The only way a playwright can learn is from seeing their work on the stage, by being involved in the theatrical process. But the financial risk of putting on a new play is enormous, and most companies shy away from it for that very reason. And so we have an endless cycle of writers who need experience not getting it, and writers who do get to have that experience being howled out of town if they happen to make a few bad choices. It’s a high stakes game, and I wish that could be changed somehow.
I think the one thing any playwright can do to get their work out there is to learn how to produce – and put it on yourself!
I’ve certainly had to that this time around. I could have waited years trying to get Machina on the professional mainstage – and by then, who knows how technology may have changed? For me it was important that the play be seen now, in 2014, and the only way I could ensure that was do put it on myself. (With the help of my co-producer Catarina Hebbard, of course!). It’s been quite the learning curve, and incredibly hard work – but as a playwright it’s given me a much greater appreciation for the logistics of getting a show up, and I think that’s important knowledge to have.
What do you see happening in Australian writing for the theatre at the moment, and what would you like to see? (What do you think we need to be writing about?)
I see a lot of storytelling at the moment. These endless two and three handers where actors just talk at the audience for two hours – often in lovely poetic language but with no sense of dynamism, no sense of drama. I want to see characters interact on stage, to have a story shown to me, and not told. It’s harder to write – of course it is – but it’s infinitely more satisfying for an audience.
Cast sizes also are an eternal problem – the cast size of Machina is 6, which is way too large these days from a financial perspective. And yet you look at Death of a Salesman and the cast size is 13 or something! It makes me weep.
Who are your greatest influences and with whom would you like to work?
My favourite playwright after all these years is probably still Carly Churchill. Her plays are just so alive, and they come from a subterranean place – what Arthur Miller called “the inner world.” I love how Churchill is so often concerned not simply with the obvious questions about modern society, but about the questions behind those questions – the very philosophical bedrock that our notions of sex, or colonialism, or human cloning – or whatever – are founded on.
Aside from Churchill, I’ve been influenced by so many playwrights – Miller, Williams, Ibsen, Chekhov, Buchner. Christopher Shinn (a New York playwright) had a big impact when I was younger. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was a huge influence on Machina, actually. From Australian playwrights, Alex Buzo’s Coralie Lansdown Says No is probably the only Australian play I wish I had written – as much as I admire people like Gow and Nowra and Sewell. But Buzo’s potent mix of humour and tragedy – the lone woman sticking two fingers up to Australian masculinity, at the very height of the New Wave – it’s a very special play.
What is your role when you step into the rehearsal room? Are there rewrites during the rehearsal process? What do the actors do for you at this point?
I do re-writein the rehearsal room – I think it’s essential, actually. Some things you just don’t see until it’s up on its feet, and as a playwright you should be ready to respond to that. Just two weeks ago I had to cut a whole page out of Scene 3 of Machina – it had read fine on the page, but suddenly on its feet it was clear the scene was going on for much too long. A lot of ideas which I thought I had to be explained through dialogue were suddenly self-evident through the actors’ body language. And actors are amazing at picking up inconsistencies or wonky word choices for their characters. You’re thinking about the play on a macro level, and they’re thinking about it on a micro level – so I always take the feedback I get from actors very seriously.
How important is your social media presence for you personally and professionally?
I re-joined Facebook in 2012 predominantly for professional reasons. I found when I was away from it that events would happen that I simply had no idea about – the Matildas for example! At least on Facebook now I feel like I have some semblance of what’s going on around town. But I use it differently now on a personal level – I do still post personal updates occasionally, but always in an ironic, humorous way – I never post confessionals anymore. Trying to engage with people on a deep level via Facebook is a recipe for heartbreak. I treat it as the extension of the schoolyard that it is.
What are your thoughts on private lives being made public, and the use of personal (unpublished) journals and diaries as opposed to online activity? For example, the value of Day One journaling app or a paper diary compared to a Tumblr site.
Well it’s inevitably going to alter what you write, how you write it, etc, because of the context: a paper diary is intended only to be written for yourself, and so there’s less a sense of self-censorship or self-awareness in that. Online of course you’re writing with the knowledge that this will be publicly viewed, and possibly critiqued, or shared, or celebrated, or quoted. All of a sudden the walls go up. The self-consciousness sets in. The need to entertain, the need to be thought of as cool, all these things become more important than the thing itself. I could never diarize online – not honestly.
Tell us about working with Director, Catarina Hebbard.
Cat’s an incredible director to work with – mainly because she’s just so open. Open to ideas, open to suggestions, open to input from the entire company. While there’s never any doubt that she’s in charge, she’s not the kind of director who’s tyrannical about that position – it’s all about making the meaning of the work clear to the audience. Not all directors know how to work on a new play, or work with a writer for that matter: Cat’s never threatened by my being in the room, or by my suggestions – she welcomes them and is always open to trying things out.
Tell us about your experience using the crowdfunding platform pozible.com in order to produce Machina. How important was social media during this time?
The irony is interesting, isn’t it! For a play that is often critical of social media, that platform was incredibly important for us in financing this production. Cat and I were so overwhelmed and humbled by the support we received via Pozible. It meant we were able to pay for our set, props, and costumes without relying purely on box office takings, which was a massive weight off our shoulders, as had not received any other funding.
There’s no doubt that the internet has and is doing amazing things for our industry, and in one way crowd-funding is a definite example of that. But on the other hand it is a dangerous game – if governments start to sense that crowdfunding is the future, then further cuts to the Arts are inevitable.
I think it’s important to stress that Pozible and Kickstarter are sites that can complement current funding models, but not replace them. We raised around $5000 on Pozible and that’s amazing – but if we were trying to pay our actors professionally this would only equate to 10% of our budget. If we are serious about creating a sustainable independent sector, then government funding is still an essential part of that equation.