Social Media and Immersive Performance: ‘User Not Found’

Each click we make online seems to be tracked, recorded, bought and sold. Facebook and Whatsapp alone handle 60 billion messages per day. Social media has never seemed so influential or controversial – a vital factor in our identities, relationships, and our day-to-day decisions, big and small.

But what is its role for contemporary theatre? As an element in a performance, or as a tool for advertisers, audience members and critics in the days before and after a live event? Whatever its potential, Michael Billington, theatre critic at The Guardian, thinks digital media is too embedded in our lives for writers and directors to ignore it. ‘For theatre to turn its back on new technology,’ he writes, ‘would be as if it had rejected electrically controlled lighting when it came into play in the 1880s’.

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Here at Minghella Studios, we’re collaborating on a project called User Not Found, about social media’s overlooked impact on one important part of lives –  loss and bereavement. We’re working with theatre company Dante or Die, as well as Marmelo Digital, to develop a performance and app. For the performance – which will be showing at London’s Roundhouse, Ipswich’s PULSE festival, the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, and Reading’s South Street Arts Centre – each audience member will be given a set of headphones and a phone through which they will accompany a grieving process. The character first finds out about the death of his ex-partner via online messaging – making us reconsider social media’s role in relation to human compassion, the meaning of community, our experience of alienation, and the way in which our memories surface.

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Technology is making its mark on the world’s stage more than ever. With the National Theatre of Wales’ live-streamed production of Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (2012); the RSC’s collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios to create an avatar-Ariel for their 2016 production of The Tempest; and Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi’s skyped performance in Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years (2016) at London’s Arcola Theatre, theatre makers are exploring digital possibilities, and asking important questions about our digital lives.

User Not Found joins this conversation, exploring ideas concerning immersivity in performance and online spaces, and urging us to ask how we experience loss in the digital age.

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