trying not to fuck it all up while the world goes to shit.

in the last month or so, since we began work on anthony macmahon’s TROMPE-LA-MORT for summerworks, we’ve been rolling around on wheelie chairs and talking about digital technology while the world seems to have gone to shit.

a not-exhaustive-by-any-means kind of list: the orlando shootings, the brexit referendum, the failed putsch in turkey, the attacks in nice, baghdad, kabul, munich, trump’s confirmation as republican nominee—and in my little corner of reality, a bad case of pink eye. it’s all fucked.

i was relieved to finally read a piece—a long-read by mark mackinnon in the globe and mail—that proposed an interconnectivity between the societal disasters of recent months. he didn’t mention my pink eye but i’m sure it was an accidental omission. it’s hard not to feel instinctively that these crises, on both the macro and the micro levels, are connected.

it’s something that struck me right off the bat about anthony’s script. when he sent it to me in the winter, wondering if i would take on directing it, i found his treatment of global capitalism in the digital age remarkably imaginative and impressively efficient. it pulls together complex questions of information privacy, surveillance, and globalized economics into a tight and exciting thriller. through a glimpse into the lives of four software programmers and a venture capitalist, the play manages to interrogate how we measure the impact of our actions—both as individuals and as a society—and conduct ourselves ethically within global capitalism.

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it’s a strange thing for me to direct a play set in the near future and a world with internet—i’m used to troubleshooting jacobean incest plots and narratives with a lot of travel by horseback. it’s stranger still, because the imaginary 2017 that anthony’s script proposes is defined by our immediate and rapidly-changing political situation. since he sent me a copy in january, the script has had to go through a whole new draft to incorporate shifts in global politics and digital technologies.

it’s not going to age well, this script. by this time next year, it will need some minor edits at the very least—or perhaps it will have become completely implausible by then. writing this a couple weeks before our first show, i’m just hoping there is no major global paradigm shift or economic crisis between now and opening, if only so the actors can learn their damn lines.

i’m just hoping there is no major global paradigm shift or economic crisis between now and opening, if only so the actors can learn their damn lines

mackinnon’s article in the globe (with acknowledgements to margaret macmillan), compellingly identifies our era as one of volatility and anxiety, comparing it to pre-WWI europe. since 9/11, and with the 2008 financial crisis, the global political situation has become increasingly paranoid and unstable, and he draws connections between the global economy, international wars, human migration, and the rise of right-wing populism across europe and america.

but it’s pretty easy not to feel like you’re living in the heart of an epochal shift. at first, the fall of the berlin wall would have just been a headline in toronto. a big one, and a shocking one, but the fall of communism across most of eastern europe was a years-long process. another day, another headline. just as 9/11 indisputably felt big, even to my sixteen-year-old self. but as classes were put on hold at my high school, i wasn’t aware at the time that the day would come to mark a tectonic shift in global politics.

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what anthony’s script so brilliantly articulates is that now, more than ever, in the digital, globalized age, we can observe the interconnectivity of every action. we can calculate (to some extent) the impact of our choices—on the economy, on the environment, on human beings continents away whom we are unlikely to ever meet.

there’s a line in anthony’s script that i’ve come to think of as the play’s central problem. owen says: “just—i want to do good by society. i don’t want to do anything to fuck up.” i think that’s actually pretty eloquently stated.

a situation has come to mind repeatedly as we’ve tackled this play. i’m standing in a produce aisle staring at the apples. which do i buy? the local ones? the organic ones? or just fuck it—the cheapest ones? what’s the carbon footprint? but what economy needs my contribution most? what pesticides is that putting in the province’s water supply? is it GMO? are those even necessarily bad”?—well okay at least i won’t put it in a plastic bag. even that apple is going to have some impact on the world. how do you minimize that impact, or compensate for it?

most people only have the energy to be political about x number of things in their lives. we are a mess of contradictions, the result of prioritizing our politics

in rehearsal we’ve been making choices about the characters based on the ideals they articulate, but it’s tough—what is the anarchist wearing or eating? if they manifested all the politics they expressed, they’d be naked, hungry, and wouldn’t own computers. the truth is we’re a lot more complicated than that; it’s only characters in a play that can be easily defined by absolutes. most people only have the energy to be political about x number of things in their lives. we are a mess of contradictions, the result of prioritizing our politics. some eat vegan but drive a car. some commit to holistic medicine but smoke cigarettes. some will bring a reusable bag to shoppers but use plastic cutlery for take-out.

in trying to measure your actions’ impact(s), you have to decide on the scale you are working with. on yourself? your social circle? city, region, country—the world? mackinnon cites the rise of “tribalist thinking” as a response to globalization. there’s only so many people we can include in our consciences, and we tend to have the backs of people like ourselves. i suppose that’s pretty normal.

take my pink eye. i knew i could at least do my best not to spread it around—buckets of hand sanitizer, stop hugging people, be careful what i touch. get eye drops and try to clear it faster. but who makes those drops? a german pharma multinational with a history of troubles with regulators due to low standards at their quebec plant. halting production in 2012 led to north american shortages in generic cancer medications. and that’s just the first google hit. there are probably environmental impacts in their production methods. not to mention global classism at play in the availability of their products to those who need them. and then there’s the impact of the device with which i searched for this information—slave labour in china made this macbook. and what government agencies are tracking the google search, what data sets have i just augmented? the centripetal force of all the spinning around in your head trying to measure the impact of a single action becomes too much—my eye was itchy, i looked like an evil lizard queen, and i had a play to direct. i took the eyedrops.

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it becomes paralyzing, at a certain point. when owen says the line i quoted above, about wanting to do good, or at least not wanting to fuck up, his scene partner answers “fucking up is all there is.” he’s working with falsely defined terms. you can’t do “good.” fucking up is all there is. in global capitalism, you can’t make a choice that has a net-zero negative impact.

just as in directing this piece, or any other, it’s your job to make choices constantly, choices that have an impact on the interconnected way in which a play produces meaning. you don’t want to do anything to fuck up. in a room full of actors and designers asking questions, it’s your job to answer them and pretend that you aren’t anxious that the world is going to shit outside and somehow the most significant contribution you feel you can make to humanity at this moment is to direct a play for an indie theatre festival in toronto. a play that will produce waste, use electricity, participate in the economy as-is—that is, reinforce the model—and, in the best case, will be seen by a maximum of 700 people. you can think about that, or you can fixate on whether the actor should get out of the wheelie chair for the monologue or not, or whether you put your pink-eye hands on that wheelie chair, or whether this play even wants wheelie chairs to exist in it in the first place——. or you can find liberation in accepting that you’re going to fuck it up somehow, and switch to asking: how can i fuck things up in the most useful way?

TROMPE-LA-MORT, or goriot in the 21st century is anthony macmahon’s new play premiering at summerworks this year. it’s a digital-age thriller about privacy, globalized economics, and infoterrorism. it might have some wheelie chairs in it by the time you see it. or not.

for tickets or more information, click here

Written By

ted witzel isn’t sure how he’d like to be described. he makes theatre about systems of power, and he recently snuck a butt-plug into a family-friendly shakespeare play. the spider plant he killed in the winter has been replaced and the new one’s thriving. he promises to take better care of this one.