by Padraic Lillis · February 21, 2014
I have wanted to touch in on how appreciative I am for the topic Lindsay is exploring with her play. The simple question of how social media creates new ways for us to learn about important personal news. In her questions to the students, Lindsay asks about, how people learn about marriages, births, new jobs, and death. The announcement of those events has dramatically shifted in the last ten years. I wonder what impact they have on a generation. Are the events taken in stride, are they diminished in scope, or is there no longer a need for privacy to digest, mourn, celebrate, or react to the news. Do we now live in a completely public arena at all times. I am curious what that does to a generation that has come of age in the era of social media.
Two weeks ago I was teaching a play development class. And my phone kept buzzing. I should've probably had my phone off for class, but no one does that. We have access twenty-four/seven. After a third text from my girlfriend, I finally responded that I was in class and I would call her after. She texted back, 'it is important'. That is not normal. I thought I would wait for the conversation about the script we were discussing to finish and then I would step outside the room to call. My phone kept buzzing. I excused myself from the class and as I read the text, "I know you're teaching. But it's Phil." My heart sank. I knew. I unlocked my phone and before I could dial I saw a second text, from my brother, "I just heard Phil is dead." I called my girlfriend and I let her know that I heard. I thanked her for letting me know. She wanted me to hear it from her before I heard it in the media. Phil Hoffman was a lifelong friend of mine. My first thought was to go back in and to finish the class. And I would deal with these feelings and all of the phone calls to family and friends after. As I went into to the room, everyone was staring; there was sadness in the room. I sat in silence trying to figure out how to restart class, someone said, "We know".
Of course they knew. They all worked in the theater. Most of us were introduced to each other through the Labyrinth Theater Company. While I was out of the room they were getting the same text messages from their friends. Yes, he was a public figure. Yes, this was going to be on the news and everyone would be made aware of it. However, it became clear at that moment that everyone would be made aware of it immediately. There would be no voice-to-voice contact. It wouldn’t be an intimate private moment. The news would show up on your phone, in your hand, while in a crowded room.
I remember when I was about ten years old and I was told of the death of my Great-Grandmother. I remember the pause on the other end of the phone before the person told me. I knew this was going to be important information. The air between the silences was heavy. There was a tone that would be there for numerous more calls in my life introducing the loss of a loved one. That density created the right amount of distance and preparation for the news. This past month I have read about deaths of professional colleagues, former professors, and a lifelong friend while scrolling through Facebook statuses or reading a text message. As if “do you want to meet for coffee?” is equal to “I just heard Phil is dead.”
What impact does this public and casual communication have on our emotional lives? Do we register the import of events in our lives by the number of ‘likes’ or comments they receive? Or does the generation growing up in this public forum process their emotional life in a different fashion than was done in the past?
I don’t know the answers. I do know that I’m excited that the college collaboration project is putting these questions forward in a play. And that the collaboration is allowing for the students of the generation coming of age with social media to impact the way the playwright explores these ideas. Whether the play directly addresses these issues or not, the project is already successful in my mind simply by asking the questions and beginning the conversation.
A couple of summers ago I watched Phil teach an acting class using the play Our Town. He began by asking, ‘how do you start?’ He jotted down all of the students’ methods for beginning the work. He was encouraging and then he said, ‘yeah, but how do you start?’ And he began with the question of why. Which then inspired the next question, and then the next. Why is the stage manager telling this story, to this audience? How many times has he told it? What is this story about? It’s about mortality. Life. Death. What does he know about death? What is his relationship to it? What do I know about death? And from all of these questions there were no answers, just the next question. He was digging to find the question that would elicit an internal emotional response that would connect him personally to the work.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have an emotional response that connects me to the work. I do. I still have questions. Many. I am grateful that the process of developing this play will allow me to continue to ask them. I am grateful that this project started with questions from Lindsay to the students. I am grateful that this collaboration will have the input of multiple generations of artists. I am grateful for the process and look forward to learning from all of your contributions. I am grateful that I will be able to watch new connections and friendships be formed throughout this process. I am grateful for the people who reached out to let me know about my friend, ensuring I got the news from someone I knew personally. I am grateful for my friendship with Phil. I am grateful he let me know that he found this project inspiring. I am grateful for all of you.
Talk with you soon.