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A SUFFOCATING CHOKING FEELING: The Digital and the Physical Collide

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What constitutes ‘engagement’ on social media? My social media use, I would say, can be categorised as pretty standard: I see posts, I like some of them, I send some to friends, I make the odd post. Is this genuine engagement? What drives us to connect with others and empathise online? These are the central questions probed by the digital-live spatial fusion of  A Suffocating Choking Feeling by UK-based Australian Theatre Company TomYumSim.  

 

Simone French, one-half of the performer pair composing TomYumSim, plays Simone Hamilton or @iamsimonehamilton in this one-woman play which features the audience as its digital and physical ensemble. As we file into the theatre at La Mama HQ in Carlton, instructions flash up on the screen. Follow along on Instagram! Comment as we go! Engage! The crowd is happy to indulge. However, when the show—a satirical narrative about capital-I influencers and the desperate grab for public attention—begins, audience members are slow to get their phones out and engage on the livestream. We are watching Simone, an aspiring musician and influencer, stream from the space outside the theatre that we occupied moments before via the on-stage projection. Though unconventional, the projection still maintains the communal audience viewing experience promised by theatre. It feels antithetical to divert attention from the stage to the individual handheld device in our pockets. I am sly at first; I hold my phone low and type quickly. Turning it off as soon as I’ve pressed enter, I wait to see my comment pop up in the comment section of the live stream. I see others around me do the same. Peeking over shoulders filling the rows in front of me, I see audience members re-thinking and revising their comments. 

 

When Simone enters the stage, the livestream continues. We are confronted with two same-but-different people: the physical—the ‘real’—and the digital. Indeed, theatre has always grappled with the fickle relation between the real and the unreal, truth and falsity, performer and performance. The audience is also implicated at an unexpected juncture between anonymity and identity through their engagement with the livestream and contiguously, with the live action. From the back row, I find myself trying to match the Instagram handles of the livestream commentators to each bobbing head around me. 

 

Simone only responds vaguely to our comments, her attitude profusely bored. Her vanity is pervasive. As an improviser, she could do more with the content offered by the audience. However, this is the influencer’s paradox: desperate for digital engagement yet unable, due to excessive self-involvement to genuinely give back to their audience/fans. From the initial excitement of this novel fusion of physical and digital theatre, the audience grows restless. We are emboldened by the permission to be distracted from the stage, reverted to (digital) individuals rather than a single mass crowd. A few seats away, someone is texting a friend. 

 

Simone French the performer, Simone Hamilton the musician-influencer and @iamsimonehamilton the digital entity must evolve to keep their audience engaged. Here enters the con artist. Like true crime, con artistry is undeniably consumable. Openly drawing on the figure of Belle Gibson, an Australian alternative health advocate who faked having multiple cancers, Simone constructs a false cancer narrative to gain online traction for her music. It is incredibly unbelievable, no thanks to the fact that the audience is present as Simone conceives and enacts the lie. The show’s message around the deceptive nature of social media may have been more effective with a ‘gotcha’ moment. However, trickery in A Suffocating Choking Feeling relies on an imagined distinction between the digital and physical audience. 

 

Nonetheless, the digitally innovative form of TomYumSim’s latest production is amusing and provocative. As the performance devolves into a medico-punk rave beneath the unsupportable conditions of fraudulence, I wonder what else can be done with the fusion of digital and physical live spaces. A Suffocating Choking Feeling uses social media to tell a tale about social media itself. Must the form be tied to its immediate content, or could live audience interaction via social media be transposed into other narratives? Could the livestream—which reflects an alternate angle of the performance for its audience—be invoked in other contexts, with differing effects? There is much to be gained from this unconventional, alluring piece of theatre.

 

Creator & Performer: Simone French

Director & Technical: Tom Halls

Lighting Design: Katie Sfetkidis

Set & Costume: Rūta Irbīte

Stage Manager: Celina Mack

UK Lighting Design: Amy Daniels

Outside Eye: Paula Varjack



A Suffocating Choking Feeling showed at La Mama HQ from 13-18 February.

 
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