Our Virtual Town

user927.jpgLast night I saw User 927, a new play commissioned by Philly's Brat Productions, that before its opening garnered quite a bit of national press. Its central conceit derives from a 2006 news story about AOL's release of 650,000 of its members' search logs. The most notorious of these, its searcher anonymously coded as User 927, tracks three months of steadily escalating perversions that start innocently enough with "Yoko Ono" and end somewhere around "F*** Her Throat" (my asterisks). 

The actual production, which I review in Friday's Inquirer, didn't go so well, at least according to me. But Brat artistic director Michael Alltop was onto something. Unfortunately, playwright Katharine Clark Gray chose to couch the subject in a fairly conventional murder-mystery, a choice which quickly waters down the topic's potency, and leads me to wonder why Alltop didn't choose a more tech-savvy and unconventional writer. 

In any case, there's a bit in the play about AOLStalker.com, a website that allows you to search all those released records for better or for worse (here's 927's actual log, but I warn you to give it a pass, because it's a real bummer of a read). Through AOL's records, the New York Times was able to sleuth out the names of two of the company's actual human members. Creepy. What have you searched for in the last three months that you might not want the New York Times to know about?

I know I'm a couple of years late to the site--even 927 knew about Numa Numa before me--but I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

What's so interesting about these logs is that some tell horror stories, some are dramas, others read like parody. They are, as Gray's characters explain, bits of "time travel," but they're more than that. User 927 is the most prurient example, but each seeker in their turn creates a deeply affecting portrait of their individual struggles, neuroses, passions, hobbies and defects. 

Once you start AOLStalking, just try to resist assigning features to a log's creator. User 30011 has light brown skin, is pretty, young, harried, with long layered black hair, a pink tank top and cut-off jean shorts, worrying about her kids and fanning herself in the Miami heat. User 1366195 is white but tan, athletic, with short black gelled hair, wearing a white t-shirt at the wooden desk in his bedroom, trying desperately to stay focused on finishing an Abraham Lincoln term paper. AOLStalkers even rate the users' records, from "Masterpiece" on down. There's probably enough material for a comedy--or tragedy--in that fact alone.

It's a digital version of Our Town, and all those voices unwittingly and unwillingly pulled through the ether are still waiting to have their proper say onstage. It was a great idea; maybe eventually it will also make great theater.

June 12, 2008 2:05 PM | | Comments (4)


'A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can't be much good.'

Now, which one of you 'Kitchen Critics' knows who said that?

No Wiking now.......

Everyone is, of course, entitled to his/her opinion. If you felt the execution was poor, so be it, but I feel obligated to ask about a couple of points in this entry.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I worked on the show producing the video installation elements and I am married to the playwright. This might not make me an objective commentator, but it does make me a rather informed one.

"Unfortunately, playwright Katharine Clark Gray chose to couch the subject in a fairly conventional murder-mystery, a choice which quickly waters down the topic's potency, and leads me to wonder why Alltop didn't choose a more tech-savvy and unconventional writer."

This sentence struck me as odd for multiple reasons. First, and most obviously, why the assumption that Katie is not "tech-savvy"? Without the benefit of interviewing her on the topic, or without reading the previous drafts, you can only really speak to how much technology she opted to include, not how much she is capable of including. In fact, earlier drafts included much more thorough explanations of the technology involved and what can/can't be done with it.

But as Michael was fond of saying, "It's a guided tour through one man's polluted mind." That became something of a mantra for our video team, a constant reminder that we were not out to tell the story of all the users, just User 927. We specifically were NOT making a play about the vast unknown of technology. We were making a play about the hunt for one man. After all, it's not called "AOL Stalker", it's called "User 927".

None of us, from writer to director to the cast to the music team, absolutely none of us ever saw it as a story about technology "couched" in a mystery tale. We all saw it as a mystery set in the world of technology. It was the juxtaposition of two manhunts -- one in the online world, the other in the analog world -- that gave us a chance to explore the effect of technology on how we interact with our own desires.

So saying that the story was watered down by the plot, struck me as very odd indeed. If you were expecting a play about technology, it might explain why you were so disappointed by what BRAT has actually produced, which is (in my admittedly biased opinion) a tightly wound suspense tale that manages to clue us in to this technology without overburdening us with its details.

Anything more stops being a play and starts being nothing more than an info-lecture with multiple speakers. Either way, it was not anyone's lack of tech-savvy that put the play's focus on the missing person. It was an artistic decision made after careful consideration and input from many people.

In short, the play that got made was the play that Katie, Michael and all of us set out to make. And it should be reviewed based on how well we did. Not on whether you would have preferred a different play.

Thanks for letting me share my opinion.

Well, I think that's just the thing, the idea behind it was fascinating, but I thought its execution was flawed. If you go onto the AOLStalker site, you'll see that in some of these logs, very clear stories develop, from start to finish. For example, read through 372368. It's a pretty remarkable document, and yes, it could easily be something other than what it appears, which is why I believe there were so many options besides a straightforward narrative. Anyway, when the review comes out tomorrow, feel free to let me know if you agreed or not.

I also saw the opening of User 927 last night, and I wonder if you saw the same play I did?

I find the idea fascinating that our minds will try to fill in the picture of each of these users, even though we know full well that no matter how much information we are given about them, we really don't have any knowledge of who they are. We don't know why they looked these things up, or how many people did it. And every gap we fill in with our own imagination turns the final picture into a projection of ourselves more than a portait of the user in question.

The idea that you are assigning skin tones and wardrobe choices those two users you listed, and that we all do that, is one of the most interesting things I felt when watching the play. I found I started to judge who might or might not be User 927 based on whether "they look like that kind of person". By the end I found I had to question myself about why I had made the presumptions I had, and what it says about me. Any play that can make its audience do that on the way out the door has done something right.

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