Another year, another lockdown. As we’re once again asked to stay apart to save lives, we are forced to come to terms with the absence of real, human connection. Similarly, the enforced closure of live theatre leaves not only a void of entertainment – but also of spaces of artistic reflection and contemplation. Facing an abyss, we turn to the digital.
Appropriately for the moment, this weekend sees the world premiere of new musical Public Domain, live streaming from London’s Southwark Playhouse. Written and performed by new musical theatre writing duo Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, Public Domain sets out to be something akin to “a musical Black Mirror about The Social Dilemma“, exploring “our relationship to being online, and searching for authentic forms of communication in a medium which so often stops that being possible.” All rather pertinent stuff right now.
Public Domain utilises the clever concept of taking the exact words of the internet (“YouTube vloggers, Instagram influencers, Facebook’s tech giants, and everyday internet users”) verbatim – and then sets it to an original musical score that evokes a mix of “everything you love about modern musical theatre cast recordings, the brooding Spotify playlists of a 16-year-old YouTuber, with a dash of Silicon-Valley electronica.”
Posing huge ethical questions like “who owns our voices once they are on the public domain? How authentic can those voices be? And what is it about total ‘authenticity’ that is so alluring?” The show promises a deep-dive into internet culture – something that’s so clearly a huge part of our everyday lives now, yet is massively underrepresented in the world of theatre. I chatted to Forristal and Clarke about the conception and creation of the show, the complexities of writing a new musical amidst a global pandemic, and the monumental task of mounting a live production in lockdown.
Forristal and Clarke’s ideas for Public Domain firmly began in December 2019, when Southwark Playhouse hosted a one-night event titled NEWSFEED. The theatre, and producer Adam Lenson, wanted to disrupt the notion that musical theatre couldn’t be contemporary by inviting new writers on the musical theatre scene to produce a song written in response to that weeks news. For Forristal and Clarke, they found their initial musical voice in the unlikely form of Internet giant Mark Zuckerberg, who that week had been famously called to Congress over Facebook’s frankly terrifying privacy policies.
“We’d literally just been raving about a video that had popped up on our Twitter feed: Congresswoman Katie Porter totally rinsing Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s atrocious treatment of their workers and data privacy ethics.”
Forristal and Clarke then spent the next frantic 48 hours musicalising the exact words of this U.S. Congress hearing into this “dark, bassy, synthy” number titled ‘9 Minutes to Cry’, that worked to replicate the “bad-ass take down vibe that we got from watching the original video. It became this Hamilton-esque ‘Cabinet Battle’ – using Katie Porter and Mark Zuckerberg’s actual words. It went down a storm.”
The enthusiastic response was enough to convince the writing duo that there was huge potential in the concept: “We’d theatricalised the equivalent of meme-autotuning, which felt really appropriate for a show about the internet.” This exploration of style continued – and Mark Zuckerberg once again found himself the unwitting subject of Forristal and Clarke’s subversive songwriting.
By the next month, the duo presented their newest tune from the show, ‘We Work Together on This‘, their basis being an unintentionally hilarious home interview with Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a thinly-veiled attempt to humanise himself in the fallout of his Congress hearing, Zuckerberg invited reporters to his home for the first-time ever – and Forristal and Clarke once again took their opportunity to adapt the moment theatrically.
The number perfectly recaptured the unintentional hilarity of the Zuckerberg home-visit, and further demonstrated that the duo had found a form that worked particularly well for this project: verbatim. “It was totally new to us, and a lot of this process has been us working out what our relationship to the form is.”
The pair cite influences from verbatim theatre pieces such as Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s 21 Chump Street, as well as theatre artists like the late Michael Friedman; but they were also keen to evolve the genre in new ways.
“We quickly found that our form of verbatim was more akin to the way YouTubers and ‘the internet’ as a voice ‘meme-ifies’ content: creating music that kind of, magnifies the tonal, emotional, and character-driven qualities of the voices we were using; underlining subtext and using musical genres to really heighten what was already there.”
This exploration into the form took the creatives down “a 12-month YouTube hole that brought us new characters and perspectives.” In developing the show, the pair went beyond capturing the sole voices of tech giants like Zuckerberg, to becoming a representation of the many characters that populate the internet: “Facebook administrators, teenagers on Twitter, Insta-vloggers, members of Congress, that happy guy on the TikTok ads.” In finding and creatively reproducing these various voices, “musical themes began to resonate across the content we were finding. The content we found told us what we needed to write next.”
As realised in the song ‘Facebook Ad‘, the duo “wanted to ‘capture’ the experience of the internet as an overwhelming info-load by including snippets of ‘newsfeed’, including video overlays and lots of soundbytes of different voices. It should feel like a bit of a doom-scroll – catching snatches of half watched videos – at times.”
But how do you creatively represent something as huge as the internet? Forristal and Clarke were adamant to “capture as many different ‘voices’ of influencers and everyday internet users as possible”, but admitted to finding the initial stages of writing tricky, owing to the “many disparate strands of people’s stories that we wanted to tell, none of them linear or ‘narratively satisfying’ so to speak”.
They found their framework by creating two characters, ‘Millie’ (“sporty spice, health guru, buddha bowls – millennial”) and ‘Z’ (“GCSEs, existential dread, swag – Generation Z”), who became the surrogate representation of the many, many voices of the internet. Forristal and Clarke worked to”distill” the exact words of various internet individuals into the characters, the script ultimately serving as an “assimilation of lots of different influencers’ material.”
Of course, writing a new musical in 2020 brought about unprecedented challenges, with the Coronavirus pandemic not only changing how the team put the piece together technically – but also informing the piece creatively.
In the case of Public Domain, the pandemic presented an opportunity for Forristal and Clarke to really engage with the themes and content of the show: “There we were, writing a piece about searching for authentic forms of connection online. Next thing we knew, the internet was the only option we had.” Social distancing and the replaced need for digital connection worked in new ways to inform their writing and respond to the situation they were in. The pair even reveal a cut song from the show “about Zoom meetings made entirely out of tweets from the first week of lockdown.”
Public Domain certainly isn’t a show overtly about the Coronavirus pandemic, but Forristal and Clarke set out to create a musical that responds to the immediate modern world, becoming a snapshot of the changing world and the unique forces at play on the internet. For example, the song ‘Rise and Conquer’ was written in the November lockdown, highlighting the contradictions of feeling isolated whilst, in a way, never being more connected (cleverly utilising a video-call chorus of voices from lockdown).
“It’s been exhilarating writing something that is – through its form, rather than Covid-specific content itself – responding to this moment in time. Working at a distance and entirely online has been… nigh on impossible at times? But we love a challenge. And, bizarrely, it’s been a real gift for helping us engage with the themes of the show.”
The show was originally intended to be performed live, with a run booked in at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this past summer. Of course, this ultimately proved impossible, but Forristal and Clarke found themselves with an opportunity to mount the production in a new digital medium – live streaming.
Performed live onstage by Forristal and Clarke specifically for online audiences, the medium allowed Public Domain to further engage with the world of the show technically – becoming a kind of live theatre-digital hybrid by integrating video content and overlays into the production: “What better way to watch a show about the internet than on the internet?”
Adam Lenson Productions and Southwark Playhouse reinvented the theatre’s smaller playing space (the same room where the show started) as a film studio for creating live streamed theatre – with a specific focus on new writing. Digital productions of Fiver, The Fabulist Fox Sister and Stay Awake, Jake took to Southwark’s streamed-stage in November and December – with Public Domain‘s run this weekend serving as the final live stream of the season – just before the theatre heads back into self-imposed hibernation following the recent January lockdown announcement.
A reduced crew are working hard to produce the show safely in the circumstances, and the duo recognise that “there’s certainly a pressure to do all we can to make sure we are being responsible.” They also note how the measures they take in producing the show safely may “help other folks do it similarly later down the line, making theatre more accessible. We just feel really lucky to have the opportunity to be making this at all!”
Forristal and Clarke hope Public Domain gives their viewers something to think about, particularly in their personal relationship with the internet: “We want audiences to come away from the piece questioning their own relationship to the internet. What is your voice online, and how does it relate to an ‘authentic’ self?” In a time when nearly all our communication is online via text and Zoom, Forristal and Clarke hopes the musical helps up “question how we can find truthful versions of ourselves, or indeed modes of interaction with those we love most.”
Public Domain streams live to online audiences for three performances on 15th and 16th January. A recording of the production is also streaming online until 31st January. Tickets are on sale here.
Featured Photo: © Michael Wharley