The digital age is the only age I have known as an adult, and as I get older, my online profiles are starting to look like my life story. If you wanted to find out something about me, chances are you could make an educated guess if you spent enough time scrolling down my timeline. As much as I try to filter what I share, the sheer amount of material I have put online over the years will eventually become too big for me to manage. In our media-rich world, there are way too many clues.
Scraping up behavior from people’s electronic lives is already typical practice with public figures. In our recent election alone, video footage and email conversations both major candidates would have rather let lie surfaced and spread across social media for the public to judge.
In the new play Public Exposure, we look at what could happen when people are paid to dig up online stories that would otherwise be buried. For the show, Market Garden Theatre transformed a basement room in Northeast Minneapolis into a dank living space. It was the home of Ford (Nick Wolf), recently laid off from his corporate job. He copes by hosting parties, popping pain medication to soothe his broken toes, and squatting in the basement of one of his dad’s properties to avoid paying rent. In walks his friend Jen (an electric Marci Lucht), who is still plodding along at the company. After opening up one of the many booze bottles littering the apartment, Jen reveals her plan for when she inevitably gets laid off too.
She wants to start a business that uses social media to frame people at a high price. The new company would compile disgraceful evidence (like racist rants and patriarchal party photos), for clients willing to do whatever it takes to beat the competition — like getting their rivals fired. As they discuss what building a business like this could mean, Jen and Ford discover that the repercussions could be more serious than they budgeted for. Marika Proctor (who stood out as a newbie human resources representative) barges in at just the right time and simultaneously provides comic relief and a chilling affirmation of how their plan could mess with people’s lives.
Public Exposure is full of wonderfully scary ideas about where our electronic lives are taking us. The premise of Keith Hovis’s script offers more than enough fodder to fill a basement room for 90 minutes. He constructed the two main characters to effectively show us two sides of social media’s potential. Jen, the visionary behind the business plan, lauds its power to hold us accountable, determine who gets ahead, and strip undeserving people of their livelihoods. Ford counters her with his thoughts on why, yes, there is a great power to be harnessed, but it should not be done lightly. Their interplay is entertaining and flows nicely under Lucas Skjaret’s direction.
In one scene, they watch a viral video of a co-worker whose racist photos were scraped from Facebook, printed out by another coworker and hung up for all to see. Her public humiliation was caught on tape. The audience gets to watch as she cries, “I’m not a bad person.” The nastiness was right there on her timeline, Jen argues, so she deserved it. She raises what could be the play’s most interesting question: Are our online actions the same as our in-person ones? Are they less real, or because they are immortalized online, more so?
Ripped from the headlines
This stuff is really happening. This past year, a Bank of America employee was fired after her racist Facebook rant went viral. When a teacher’s aide from Georgia posted racist remarks about Michelle Obama, not only was she fired but the online community created a hashtag begging the school district to terminate her. The question is: Do we know whether these people are really bad people?
And if racist comments are getting people fired from their jobs, why did America hire Donald Trump for his new job? What does this say about standards and double standards? And how much would we have to pay to set the characters from this play on his trail?
As you can see, the play raised all sorts of questions. Interestingly, in Public Exposure, it was not up to the public to determine the targeted person’s fate, but the highest bidder. At the end of the day, money was what the characters seemed most interested in — not justice. Because justice would be in the hands of their client, the person who pays the bills.
Market Garden Theatre bit off a lot by tackling such a meaty topic in an hour and a half. I think they succeeded in convincing us of the power of social media to expose racism and make people suffer the consequences. I think they were less successful in how they chose to give time and focus to those ideas.
Mainly, the concept itself seemed stronger than how it was carried out. So much script time was spent building up to Jen’s business proposal, and then on a looping discussion about the ethics of bringing it to market. By the time her plan was out, the characters had to race ahead with their decisions. As an audience member, I initially felt like I was a few steps ahead of the characters and wanted them to get on with their plan. But when they did, they advanced the discussion too fast to make it accessible and bring us along with them.
I applaud Public Exposure for getting so many mental gears turning, if not during the show, then after. It would be even better, though, if the show’s gears and the audience’s gears could have turned at the same pace.
But don’t worry; I’m not digging through anyone’s Facebook feed because of it.