The following is a transcript of an email chain between the writers of PhFreaking, Dylan James Amick and Julia Katz. Come to Dixon Place tonight to see the show!
Title: Re: That blog we were supposed to write.
I hope all is well. I had an idea for the blog we were supposed to write about Phfreaking. We were supposed to write it about the process of writing this play and since we wrote a lot of this play over email/phone calls, this seems like a fitting way to discuss it. Put it out tomorrow as an all call for people to attend?
Here is my concept thought for us to talk about, but feel free to change this if it sucks. What did you hope to accomplish with writing this?
There were a few main goals for me in writing this. One thing was, I wanted a subject that would spark the ensemble to true creative connectivity in devising – it seems like everyone felt that way about Internet culture, gender, and tech, etc. It’s funny in looking at that now because people are certainly sick of it two years later! But we had some really awesome generative rehearsals near the beginning of the project.
The other goal that sort of emerged after we began was to create a work that ended up having a real discourse-like impact on a given audience. As I move forward in my producing (not just directing) career I am getting really into audience design as a subject – which is something I think a lot of fellow artists I’ve worked with in New York do not really think about. A lot of people in the avant-garde/indie art scene in NYC, from my estimate, have a “butts in seats” marketing policy – i.e. it doesn’t matter who is there and why, but just how many people. This is true in a lot of other places, I’m sure, I just have the most experience in New York. I was really trying to look at a work that would be performed FOR a given group of people and could be impactful for them, not just being performed BY us. So a lot of the components of the work have been centered around that.
That is very close to what I wanted out of the project.
I was excited to devise and write a play from the ground up and thinking about the design and visual element of the story the whole way through. As I continue to train my design skills and broaden my reach as director/writer I find it easiest to work on all three at once. That the way I have learned to tell stories through light and imagery helps me find the minimal words needed to express those same or adjacent thoughts. It all boils down to the concept of directing focus, a skill that some would argue is becoming more difficult these days.
And that is where I think the story starts; Joe’s flurry of focus. In an intoxicated anger, he is thrashing into the digital abyss looking for something to cling to. Joe finds several answers that he abandons just as quickly as he finds them; as many of us do on the internet. We only like ideas, we do not return to them. In our meetings, road trips, phone calls, and Skype sessions that we coordinated to work on this, that was the energy I think we both spent a lot of time trying to embody; in the images we referenced, in the text that is said, and even in the real internet comments that were pulled to represent the anonymous mob of forum users.
Every time we take a step with this show, I feel it get tighter. I feel the focus iris in a few more notches. So hopefully for one hour this Saturday, we will have a large impact on the focus of a group of theatergoers.
So Julia, I already kind of touched on this, but we had to coordinate a lot to make this happen. In the process of writing this play, we have both changed jobs, I’ve made some large personal life changes, you are now in Grad school in a totally different state; it’s not the easiest thing I have ever done. So, I ask you, why should people come to see this play we spent all this time talking about? In a way, we just spent hours of life on Reddit, reading posts that either crushed our faith in humanity or restored it. Does our conversation about learning to be a man online translate to anything real? Or did we just find some cool stories about bros who hack?
We really did coordinate a LOT. You hadn’t even moved to Wash Heights yet when we started this… And the thing is, the process-based model really worked… I’ve been so upset with myself lately for what I think is not going well with CPT, and then I sent the program content over for this show. Holy cow… just in the number of artists we’ve worked with, tangentially or in person, on this project, we’ve reached out a lot further than we ever have in terms of new faces. We’ve gotten a bit of developmental buzz by workshopping in several places. We’ve won opportunities and grants to perform and have more on the way. The program was actually a little bit of a confidence booster in this process.
But phew, in terms of who should see it and why… I think, looking at this year, it’s really obvious why people should care about this topic. For one thing, the discussion of how web culture infiltrates our society became mainstream with the whole Pepe the Frog thing and how it intersected with the presidential election. I think the reason why we zoned in on college-aged people and people who work with and are interested in college students is that the real events that are happening in relation to hacktivism and sociology are so interesting. Of course, we’ve talked a lot about Tyler Clementi and how that relates in a very literal way since the hack of that event is very similar to the events in our story… but also, even smaller events that hit very close to home. We both went to VT in the aftermath of the 4/16 shooting, and we both had it very much affect us and how we processed our world at the time. Something as simple and as insidious as some “bro” using Yik Yak (not even hacking in a traditional sense of stealing) to shoot out a message saying he’s going to cause another April 16th, which happened last year.
At the flick of a button, he sent a whole community into panic and caused many of us in the extended VT community to relive the event. It’s hard for people to process WHY a person acts like that online… but our story, by getting to the earliest roots of hacking in the phreaking movement, really tries to answer that question. Hacking isn’t particularly about computing, so much as it’s about being able to short-change a system and show your dominance over it. To show that you, as a small person, can have big shockwaves of power. And the ties to becoming a man and proving one’s masculinity, from that, weren’t big leaps. College, as an extended adolescence period today, seems like a fertile ground for all of that.
So I am most interested in getting people to come in who want to see the ties between the devices/data they use and how it impacts a culture.
Do you feel more heartened or disheartened about our culture after this writing process? What’s funny is that I don’t believe this was a polemic – we show “good” and “bad” hackers and phreakers. Did you become more frustrated by other people after our research?
I think disheartened, but not about the fact that there were people online who were kind of shitty (I think anyone who’s been in the same room as a TV in the past decade knows that), rather how frequently peopled turned to it or treated it as an on-off thing. You touched a little on the social duality of what people perceive as their ‘real-life’ versus their online presence, and that was the part that I think stung the most for me. The idea that it was somehow okay to be shittier online, so you could still call yourself a good person irl.
But I think what stopped us from making the blackhat/whitehat show that no one wanted to watch was that we didn’t take a side. We’re just letting them know what’s out there.
This seems good, right? I feel like we’ve made the world a better place for writing this.