Making connections

Perth International Arts FestivalOne of the strengths of the Perth International Arts Festival, particularly one that’s emerged in the last few years with the expended digital program, has been a willingness to dive deep into our use and misuse of technology and use art to investigate our relationship with it.

Opinions, expertise and anecdotes abound about teenagers glued to mobile phones, the bullying epidemic and even the lost art of sending letters through the mail in the email age.

Our hyper-connected world is the subject of I Wish I Was Lonely, described as an immersive theatrical experience. The brainchild of two UK writers and performers, I Wish I was Lonely is a conversation about how we use the technology in our pockets, says co-creator Chris Thorpe.

“Given this huge explosion of communication in the last few years, there hasn’t been time yet for our social evolution to catch up,” Thorpe explains. “We’ve got all this ability to connect and distract ourselves in any idle moment and we don’t quite know what to do with it yet. We haven’t developed our social reactions at the same rate as the technology – how could we? That takes a lot longer than the time we’ve had. The show’s our attempt to have a chat about that.”

I Wish I Was Lonely’s format to do so is unique. Thorpe says there’s no traditional divide between the audience and he and co-writer/co-star Hannah Jane Walker. As the pair recite poems and stories about our relationship to technology, audience members are asked to leave their mobiles on. Messages, Facebook posts and updates audience members send and receive during the show are shared and become part of the proceedings.

“We ask people to do stuff with their phones, to connect with us and with each other,” Thorpe says, “But also it’s about encouraging the people in the room to talk, to meet each other there in the moment, maybe after.”

The show still adheres to certain rules – Thorpe and Walker have created the material and direct the experience. That means the artistic success of the performance isn’t exactly dependent on audience participation, but Thorpe says it makes every show different and people feel really encouraged to talk about the questions at the heart of I Wish I Was Lonely.

The idea for the show, Thorpe explains, came from he and Walker observing their own behaviour. “We realised that while it’s brought some amazing new dimensions to our lives, there’s also this separation from ourselves that we never had before,” he says. “It’s not just that we use our phones to distance ourselves from ‘live’ contact with other people, although there can be an element of that, we use them to avoid being alone, which is contact with ourselves.”

It’s a worthy and weighty question to ask on a societal level, and I Wish I Was Lonely seems like the ideal creative framework to ask it. It also seems like the perfect art performance for the modern world where the terror of not being connected to the world for five minutes has become an acronym – FOMO (fear of missing out) – alongside such immortal motifs as LOL and BRB.

But it does beg the question; are Thorpe and Walker just Luddites? “I’m aware that makes it sound like quite a new-agey show about ‘re-connecting with yourself’ or something,” Thorpe laughs. “It isn’t. It’s a chat, a laugh and an emotional experience. It’s always a real thing. We don’t get floaty. Would I rather live in a world without this technology? Absolutely not.

“In terms of how we communicate, yes, we’ve done the usual human things of using it to make certain things easier than they should be, but that’s an individual human problem rather than a technology problem. We can try to work on that.”

I Wish I Was Lonely had a rave review in TimeOut London, and Thorpe sounds as surprised as he is pleased that he and Walker are coming Perth to perform the show, but no matter how far they travel it remains all about connecting with people – genuinely rather than ironically, given the subject mater.

“The hope’s that we get to meet as many people as possible,” he says. “The more people we get to meet, the bigger the conversation. If you expect success in terms of reviews or places you might go you’re always going to be a bit disappointed. But if we look back to the initial conversation we had a couple of years ago and realise we’re coming all the way to Perth to do this, then everything’s a bonus.”