Social Media Theater: Where Sylvia Plath is Alive and Well

Rachel Syme | March 22nd, 2011

A week or so ago, I got an email with the subject line, “Sylvia Plath is now following you on Twitter.”

While I consider myself open to mystical happenings, I was skeptical: After a woman has shoved her head in an oven, one assumes that it’s not possible for her to spring back to life, learn 50 years of technological and cultural updates, and then tweet about them.

And yet, when I clicked on the feed (you would have done it, too!), I realized that this wasn’t your typical Twitter imposter. The hammering out of 140-character updates under fake avatars has become a widespread phenomenon (see @fakestevejobs, @halfpintingalls or @mayoremanuel for examples), but whoever was tweeting as Ms. Plath was doing so in a way I hadn’t seen before: The writer placed Sylvia inside of a specific situation — a mini-play, of sorts — in which the poet lands in the small town of Northbrook, Illinois, commissioned to write a one-act. The fictional Plath has to put up with Rhonda and Chloe, the lovable local yokels who are vying for the starring role in the play, and she tweets about how forlorn and lost she feels among the country folk.

A few examples:

Forty pages typed, and Rhonda is an emoting blender of slush. She is a floral, fleshy girl with Moscow lips, but an opal heart.

The locals ferociously dine out and purchase slick, pink ballet shoes for their young. O drummed out dance among the tortured nylon.

Sleep has overtaken my lids. O curse you, Whopper, stronger than ten xanex. I become a red velvet theatre seat.

I was impressed with the diligence of the tone and the fact that the author had given the Plath character a location, a setpiece, and a playground. It almost felt to me like a strange sort of theater. And as it turns out…it is.

Looking deeper into the feed, I discovered that it is written by Karen Nystrom, a Chicago-based slam poet and performer — and that her @sylviaplath handle was part of a bigger project. Nystrom set up the Plath-goes-rural scenario as part of Re:Orbit, an “experiment in social media theater” that launched on March 1.

Imagine a world in which a character from an upcoming Broadway show goes onto Twitter and gains a following before they ever debut on stage? Imagine a playwright creating a mini-drama or feud between two fictional avatars, and then bringing that emotion into a physical space?

The concept of Re:Orbit is this: Writers, actors, and artists pick cultural icons or fictional characters to inhabit, place these characters into a scene, and let them play around within it over Twitter. There is @MrMillerSurfin, which explores what life might be like for the playwright Arthur Miller if he moved to Venice Beach. The voice behind the fake Miller is actress Amelia Mulkey, who recently moved to L.A. herself to direct a production of Miller’s Memory of Two Mondays (example: “Spend the morning with hobo pirates and the evening with industry godesses.”). Then there’s @tweenbeckett, which imagines Samuel Beckett as an angsty teenager (Atlanta-based actor Steven Westdahl runs this one, typing out updates like “Just to be clear: @justinbieber is a synthesizer trying to bring in as much as he can. I’m an analyzer trying to leave out as much as I can”).

It’s beyond absurd to imagine Samuel Beckett ever dedicating his thoughts to the likes of Justin Bieber, but the members of Re:Orbit are actively trafficking in the absurd; and they are performing the hell out of these characters. Whether or not the project can be classified as “theater” is another story.

Re:Orbit was the brainchild of four friends living in the Bay Area — Eric DeJesus, Dawn Danby, Adrian Cotter and Erik Hinzpeter. They were not intending to launch a theater company, per se, but rather to shake themselves out of their daily routines by experiementing with new ways of storytelling using a new medium.

“I’ve been using Twitter for the last couple of years as a creative writing outlet, given that creative writing has nothing to do with the work I do,” says Dawn Danby. Fourth Wall spoke to Danby from her home in San Francisco, where she works as an “industrial designer and synthesist” by day. “But Eric had the early idea. He wrote a blog post about it a couple years ago; he was flipping back and forth between a Twitter account and reading about Lawrence of Arabia in the Times, and started to wonder what Lawrence would say about the news today. So combined with Eric’s thoughts, and the fact that I was doing this creative acupuncture with Twitter — writing these tiny poems inside this compressed space — it all came together.”

The pair teamed up with designer friends and launched Re:Orbit, Danby says, “to infuse art into the mundane. There’s so much marketing and advertising on that platform, and we wanted to do something different, something inherently performative.”

But is it theater? Can watching someone act out a fictional character in tiny spurts ever be as fulfilling as watching them inhabit one in flesh on the stage? Danby argues that the Internet is creating a new kind of theater, one in which the actor, director, and producer are the same person.

“We’ve been calling it social media theater, because yes, the people involved are writing and acting,” Danby says. “Eric had reached out to people in theater world, playwrights, directors, actors, in a sense we are asking people to bleed all those roles together. These people usually all have different roles within he hierarchy of the theater. But, for example, Amelia Malkey, as she directs an Arthur Miller play, is writing a Re:Orbit as Miller. She has told us that it makes her work that much deeper.”

And in fact, this is the most exciting aspect of Re:Orbit and other online experiments in performance — the fact that they can be an excellent complement to stage shows, if not a replacement for them. Imagine a world in which a character from an upcoming Broadway show goes onto Twitter and gains a following before they ever debut on stage? Imagine a playwright creating a mini-drama or feud between two fictional avatars, and then bringing that emotion into a physical space? The interchange between online personae and real-life acting is still in its most nascent stages, but projects like Re:Orbit may be a sign that there will be some intriguing developments on the way.

I am considering starting a Re:Orbit as Chekhov, placing him inside a high school cafeteria. I can think of no better place to feel ennui or utter despair. But I think I’ll leave it to the pros.