Please please tell me
Please because I’ll never
Two friends stand together, maybe at a bus stop. One tells the other that she has a secret that she can’t reveal to anyone. The second woman cajoles and inveigles and finally the first whispers into her ear. Her eyes grow wide at the revelation. But what does she do now?
Unlike the characters in this opening scene of Love and Information, the audience never learns the secret. But the scene sets the stage for the rest of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2012 play: with so much information available, do we really need to know as much as we think we do?
The 90-minute, no-intermission show, running through August 9 at San Francisco’s revived Strand Theater, comprises 57 mostly unrelated vignettes—some as brief as a few sentences—divided into seven sections and performed by a dozen very busy actors. (The Strand’s revival by one of San Francisco’s most important theater companies, American Contemporary Theater, is also newsworthy for West Coast theater—see below.) Ranging from five seconds to five minutes short, some scenes are funny (teenage girls giddily crushing on a teen idol), some poignant (a woman gets a terrifying diagnosis from a physician; a son learns that the woman he thought was his older sister is actually his mother), some trivial (a couple bicker about whether to go over to another couple’s house). One scene, in its entirety: [Someone sneezes.]
It’s the theatrical equivalent of a novel written in tweets, or a TV episode compiled from constant channel surfing, an album made of 30-second song previews … take your pick from any of today’s rapid-fire media phenomena. It’s a thrill ride—until it isn’t.
We’ve all been bombarded by the news that we’re all being bombarded by information these days, so much that we’re risking info overload about info overload. Do we really need to be shown it onstage? Does a theatrical presentation of TMI + ADD = WTF? How many short sketches do we need to experience to really get the point that our info-ADDled society is destroying our attention spans, our ability to form or sustain relationships, even our ability to focus on… uh, what was I saying again?
Love and Information’s concept risks succumbing to mere gimmickry, or notebook dump: a repository for the random lines of dialogue and scene starters and plot ideas that every writer compiles, only a few of which every germinate into full stories or plays. Such high concept theater comes as no surprise from Caryl Churchill, one of the most adventurous playwrights of our time, whether it’s the gender switcheroos in Cloud 9 or history changing women (fictional and non) from various eras gathering for dinner in Top Girls. Bristling with typically Churchillian elliptical, often overlapping, dialogue, her bare-bones script eschews stage directions and rarely describes or even names the characters, nor specifies the order of staging scenes within each section. (The excerpt at the top of this story comes directly from the script’s opening scene.) Churchill cannily chose familiar or easily graspable situations, with each scene starting in the middle of its respective action.
Sometimes a scene specifically addresses the info overload theme—a character texting through a meal, a teenager playing video games at his parents’ house while his sister attempts to reveal to him a family secret that involves him most intimately—but more often the only thing tying the stories together is that the characters we briefly encounter seek or convey some information. That knowledge may arrive by any of the usual 21st century means: laptop, phones, even the old fashioned way—each other. The conversations involve issues substantial or trivial, from climate change to extramarital affairs. Many of the characters seem unhappy or unfulfilled, disconnected from each other, buffeted apart by the tidal wave of information distraction, but in some cases, their troubles seem to stem from lack of knowledge rather over-abundance of it.
Information, after all, is only the second half of Churchill’s title. So, what’s love got to do with it? If love (and relationship in general) is a narrative rather than a succession of encounters, how can we get enough of the first when we’re distracted and overwhelmed by way too much of the second?
That question isn’t fully explored in L&I because, well, nothing can really be fully explored in a few seconds of stage time. The breathless pace and lacunae leave the audience constantly scrambling to fill in the backstory of what happened before (or what may happen after) each moment, because that’s what people do. But there’s no time to ponder because the next scene in this race-paced show is upon us. The sheer difficulty of connecting with the ever-shifting scenes and characters even makes it difficult to assimilate the cumulative impact of all 90 minutes of vignettes.
ACT’s video and other deft production touches contribute to the play’s headlong rush. The script’s intentional lack of specifics affords ACT’s creative team (especially director Casey Stangl, scenic designer Robert Brill, and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz), and the actors ample interpretive latitude to flesh out the bare bones. That freedom comes with a balance challenge: supplying enough information (whether through costume choices, projected imagery and text, props and so on) to fill in the essential gaps (without which we might as well just read the dialogue)—but not too much to overwhelm us (or practically speaking, to get on and offstage quickly) with information because we have only a few seconds to process most of it. For me, this pulsating production got that balance just about right. Forced to cram a whole play’s worth of interpretation into a few lines of dialogue, some of the younger actors occasionally succumb to overacting. But others find ways to make us care about them despite the brevity of our encounter, Stangl keeps everything moving snappily, and in case we didn’t get the point, her production opens and ends with an audience selfie—projected video of us staring at the stage.
Trying to keep up with the onslaught of action is initially exhilarating, and eventually exhausting, because most of us want to follow a narrative, maybe even get to know a character or two—not just solve a succession of puzzles. Despite that initial adrenaline rush, by the end, my mind was so weary at trying to keep up with new characters, new situations, new information that I wound up detaching from the story, like trying to appreciate the 50th float in a parade as much as the fifth.
And yet, our very struggle to apprehend Love and Information’s theatrical collage in effect proves its point: 21st century info overload is immersing us in evanescent snippets, divorcing us from stories. Result: we never get to process all that info, and perhaps can never be affected by it, for better or for worse. A straightforward narrative approach would vitiate the theme’s impact. Love and Information moves us (or not) not by what happens onstage but in the way we try—and ultimately, fail—to keep up.
In contrast to all the information intentionally missing from Churchill’s script, ACT provides plenty of it in the form of various ancillary events and especially a booklet called Words on Plays, featuring interviews with various principals, essays, and more background, much of which is also available on the company’s website.
Like the woman in the play’s opening scene, some would-be playgoers might ask themselves whether this particular Information is worth knowing. Given the liberties the script affords directors, I’d certainly check out an Oregon production, which I hope will happen soon, because it’d be fascinating to see how different companies handle Churchill’s sketchy material. But whether or not you’re willing to pay $40-$100 to see info overload dramatized, it’s worth checking out the Strand if you happen to be in the Bay Area (and I know a lot of Oregonians head there in the summer), which opened in May in a refurbed 1917 vaudeville house that had been boarded up for a decade before a $34 million renovation brought it back to life. Inside, its Toni Rembe Theater’s 283-seat capacity makes for a more intimate experience than ACT’s nearly quadruple sized Geary Street main stage theater. The building also hosts performances in ACT’s various educational and community programs, its new play development program, a 140-seat event space, a cafe, state of the art sound, lighting and projection capabilities, and performances by partner arts organizations. It’s one of several arts-related operations that have opened in the formerly shabby/colorful central Market Street area, where such information overload companies as Twitter and Spotify have pitched their tents. Underscoring the connection between neighborhood and stage: images from the surrounding area are incorporated into some of the projections.
It’s no accident that ACT’s visionary artistic director, Carey Perloff, chose Love and Information for the Strand’s first production, as the company reaches its 50th anniversary. Just like the characters in the show, and the rest of us, ever-gentrifying San Francisco is trying to figure out how to find human connection amid an overwhelming influx of information technology—and the consequences that follow.
American Conservatory Theater’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information runs through August 9 at Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are available online and at (415) 749-2228.
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