News: Interview with Ailin Conant

Following successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and VAULT Festivals, Theatre Témoin are taking their hit show Feed on a tour of the UK. I spoke with director Ailin Conant to find out more. 

How did you first get involved in theatre?
I was in a touring theatre company of kids aged 8-15 in my hometown that did cut-down Shakespeare plays called “The Company of Little Eyases”.  Well I say touring, we toured the local libraries where we held free performances.  But those are my very best memories from childhood.  We had a set that we’d install and once it was up we were totally on our own; the directors – the adults – were in the audience and no matter what went wrong onstage or off (and a lot went wrong both onstage and off) the show had to go on.  It was a lot of responsibility for an 8 year old, I still remember the rush of it.

Can you tell me a little bit about FEED?
FEED is a play about new media and capitalism; it’s a show about the attention economy and how our focus as consumers—our engagement, our emotional arousal, and the time we spend with our eyeballs drinking in content—is the greatest commodity on the current market.  Without giving too much away, play builds on what the audience signals it “wants” and where you start is very far from where you end up.  It’s a farce with teeth.  

What was it about the play that appealed to you?
Well we wrote the play, so it’s the subject—the attention economy—that appealed to me. Former Google Strategist James Williams cautions that this new media landscape, financially fuelled by clicks an shares, “privileges our impulses over our intentions, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage…not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, changing the way we think.”  It was when I started feeling like my own mind—and even my own capacity to empathise with others—was being affected by this relentless onslaught of polarised narratives peppered with hapless victims and helpless demons, that I decided I needed to stop creating protagonist-driven empathy stories for a bit and create something that looked at this wider problem of an economy that runs on, well, stories.

What can audiences expect?
This is not a comfortable watch, but it is very funny.  Sometimes that’s the first step to really facing something as sprawling and dark as the new media landscape, just looking at it, at what it and we have become, and sharing in the absurd humour of it all.

How did you approach directing Feed?
I’m a devising director so my approach to making all work is highly collaborative.  I start with a question or a theme and all of my collaborators bring their own questions and perspectives to the pot. Every person who has been involved in this production has brought a great deal of what is now the overall frame.

What has the response been so far?
It’s often been called both “hilarious” and “like Black Mirror”, I don’t know how you reconcile those two things but there you go.  The general consensus is that it’s not an easy watch but it’s still enjoyable—uncomfortable, but thrilling.

What would you like the play to achieve?
I’m interested in the way that provocative content rises to the top while nuance and deep thinking are pushed out of the picture, and I want to get people thinking about how this impacts us concretely. The piece goes beyond conversations of phone addiction to interrogate the link between the manipulation of brain function by capitalist technologies, and the wider–often unintended–effects of these technologies like the radicalisation of individuals and polarisation of societies. This is about how digital media is manipulating our brain function to alter not just our moods and behaviours, but our deepest-held beliefs about, and responses to, reality.

Feed is on a tour of the UK until Friday 28th February 2020.


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