Dollars to doughnuts says you’re reading this on a device.
I’m not judging. I can’t. I’m writing this on a device. Brand new, in fact: lean and fast. Shiny, clean (and fairly, uh, “clean”). A barista recently laughed that my five-year-old workhorse Macbook had a CD drive. Unrelated, but at around the same time, I felt I needed a new computer. So I bought one, and I can’t say I’m unhappy with my new purchase. With it I now feel — to reach for a nearly 20 year old Thom Yorke quote — “fitter, happier, more productive.” Well, Thom Yorke and his sarcasm can eat it. I’ve been sold. It only occasionally bothers me. Never when I’m interfacing.
If you’re actually reading this in a paper, kudos to you, Dad. My editor loves your kind. I’m pretty sure the folks at 1927, the English theater company who are performing at Spoleto for the third time this summer, would cast you a wry smile as well.
1927’s new show, Golem, is a skeptical comment on all these doodads and doohickies streamlining our lives. In it, Robert, a young man with a soul-grating job, is sold the latest get-it-quick device, which just so happens to be a Golem (Google: Meryink, Gustav; Jewish Folklore, etc.). A helpful sort, the machine does every task Robert needs doing. Eventually, a newer and “better” Golem starts giving Robert suggestions on what to buy, what to think, opinions to be shared. Older Golem models are discarded, forgotten, strewn across the streets. If the show brings up uncomfortable first-world memories of roommates who offered to give you their old Playstation 3 when the PS4 came out — otherwise it was getting dumped on the corner — well…that’s kind of the point.
All of which could be a bit on the nose, admittedly. We’re in luck, then, that such allegory is brought to us from the mischievous, creative minds at 1927. The world of the play is not ours, it’s theirs — a world that will be familiar to any Charlestonian who saw their last two raved-about Spoleto contributions, whether the macabre vignettes of Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, or the cockroach-infested fever dream, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. In Golem, the allegorical “other place” is expressionistic, tinny, goth-y in a way that looking at old daguerreotypes is goth-y: everything looks a little bleaker, and a little more whimsical.
How does 1927 achieve this sort of aesthetic? Well, with a high-powered HD projector, of course. In fact, the company is entirely reliant on technology to craft their bizarre, beautiful, retro-futurist landscapes. The Golem itself is a fantastic Claymation model, interacting with live performers (and painstakingly crafted by Paul Barritt, a 1927 co-founder). There is irony in using a world designed by tech to critique and question a world inundated with tech, but for them, that irony is besides the point.
“I would hate to think of our work as ‘ironic,’ which implies to me a sneering detachment,” ” says writer/director Susanne Andrade. “I think our work aims at truth. It is charming, magical and child like, imaginative, and very collaborative.”
(My immediate thought to this was a world that Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer would frequent when they went to sleep, whilst Danny Elfman played them a lullaby. All of these words are Googleable.)
There’s no irony in dreams. Of course, the entire world — ours — is ironical. Irony is, for lack of a better term, trending. People pay hundreds of dollars to attend a live event, only to view and record it on a tiny screen. When I read something I like on my Kindle, I highlight it immediately to save to My Clippings, instead of poring over it again and again like I used to when words were in, you know, books. Social networks have proven to make us feel lonelier. Detachment is on the upswing, aided and abetted by the tech we use to “better” our lives.
“We’re at a very adolescent stage of using our technologies,” says Arrande. “But we will learn, and adapt and grow; my hope is that we will use these technologies in anarchic ways, artistic ways. That we’ll grow out of the rather adolescent and addictive behavior we display now.”
This is probably why 1927 feels like such a tonic. The company is doing things with tech that’s not meant to be done. The fact that 1927 uses it to create a world is irrelevant to the world they wish to create. Animation is part of the spectacle, sure, but everything 1927 does is in service to the idea of the show, the characters, the music, and the story. And the end result is the same as it would be 2,500 years ago at a bare-bones theatre in Delphi: communal entertainment, communal understanding, communal catharsis. Anti-detachment, as it were.
Still, Golem is a show that conveys an anxiety with progress — or, more accurately, with the money-men behind that anxiety. We’re so wrapped up in our devices, that even a critique of them is often construed as a critique of ourselves: Arrande was once called “aggressively retro” by a friend, because she didn’t own a smartphone. Her refusal to own something was seen as taking a stance against those who did. It’s not difficult to see how this benefits the sellers in our world, and in Golem’s. Unlike in works such as Karel Capek’s 1920 science fiction R.U.R. — the Czech play from which we get the word “robot” — and others of its ilk, 1927’s automaton doesn’t achieve intellect or emotion or other human characteristics. Instead he is fed by humans with slogans and adverts and mantras. In other words, it ain’t your daddy’s Frankenstein; it’s yours.
“Our golem is a mere vessel for their control,” Arrande says.
Funnily enough, some of the first people to really grasp the show were a group who have been submerged in the personal device world since birth: a try-out audience of high schoolers.
“They thought it was an attack on Amazon,” Arrande says.
Those kids were right. Golem is an attack on Amazon. It’s an attack on my Kindle. I know that. I can see that. But I like my Kindle. It’s quick. It’s sleek. It gives me recommendations. It knows my needs.
Click here to buy.