By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You’ve got to figure it’s no accident Liam Salmon wants to meet for coffee the old-fashioned way, in person, to talk about their new play Subscribe or Like, premiering live and in person Friday at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. And, hey, unlike everyone else in the packed Whyte Avenue joint, they don’t even bring their cellphone.
Maybe they’re escaping, it crosses your mind. As a theatre artist they gravitate to characters grappling for a foothold in a world where the frontier between on- and offline has been fudged forever. They’re drawn to the “paranormal”; they think about the vanishing of the fourth wall in theatre. Their new job is at the Fringe, in charge of enhancing the presence of the festival and its live artists on digital platforms.
“A weird force we barely understand,” says Salmon, cheerfully, of the internet and its ubiquitous penetration into what we used to confidently call ‘the real world’. “Social media as an extension of humanity,” a sort of theatre of self-produced avatars, alter-egos, caricatures.
“It interacts and affects relationships in so many different circumstances. It magnifies everything….” And it’s double-sided: “on the one hand, it could be the place where a trans person finds their community. At the same time, people with violent viewpoints find each other….””
The millennial characters of Subscribe or Like live at the intersection where the hard-scrabble 3-D reality of one-bedroom basement apartments and global 2-D dreams of fame and fortune meet and greet. Rachel (Gabby Bernard) and Miles (Geoffrey Simon Brown) are wannabe YouTube stars. University grads whose lives are on hold on the long hours/low pay treadmill, they launch their own channel.
“Young people trying to navigate the world, ‘hey, notice me!’, and make money,” says the playwright of the ambitions of the couple in Subscribe or Like. “You can make a ton of money doing things on the internet. And it mirrors the fame narrative” that’s always worked its way into plays about theatre people. “It feels like another evolution of that, and how that can pervert or distort a relationship,” muses Salmon, who’s smart and thoughtful (and given to musing). “Social media is a fantastic motor, I think.”
How far will it take Rachel and Miles? Salmon feels connected to the characters. “In my situation as an emerging artist, I’ve felt it, that you almost have to destroy yourself for anyone to notice, anyone to care.”
“It’s a thriller,” they say of Subscribe or Like. “And it’s a memory play; Rachel is trying to make sense of something that’s happened (from video footage)…. Like most of my work, it’s funny. And funny gets to a point where you’re like ‘o my god!’”
“I’m just warning you,” grins Salmon, a graduate of the National Theatre School playwriting program. “There’s a scene that’s … visceral. It’s ‘o god, how far is this going to go? O god, it’s getting worse. And we go all the way!”
Coming from Salmon, this counts. After all, “I listen to murder podcasts to fall asleep — I find them comforting. Is that weird?.” They’ve always been drawn to sci-fi and horror. they say. “I really think of them as sleeper feminist genres … women as ferocious, as fighters, as capable. Ridley Scott in Alien is the perfect example. Those are the women I’ve related to in my real life too.”
Uncertainty — what’s real, what’s supernatural, what’s imagined — is prime horror fuel. It’s an un-erasable part of contemporary life now, lived as it is both live and online. From the start, Salmon has mined “the limbo space” between in their plays. In Arkangel, for example, which premiered at Nextfest’s digital 2021 edition, people are talking about strange things happening in a creepy small town, as the “real” interviews dissolve into mysterious static.
Even the relationship in Salmon’s 2022 Fringe hit Fags in Space, a queer rom-com that evolved from their time at the NTS, evolves in both obstacles and resolution from a random chance encounter in the gay digital galaxy.
The woman in Salmon’s latest, What Made You Think Of The Grass (slated for a reading at Lunchbox Theatre’s Stage One Festival in Calgary) lives in a luxury bunker with her A.I. toaster for company. “She doesn’t know if the ‘outside world’ even exists,” as the playwright describes. “But she can’t continue forever in this bunker. At some point you have to open the door and see what’s happening.”
The engine of the play is “the idea of safety,” the certainties of a halcyon age gone by. Salmon detects a pattern: “Every generation is marked by a global trauma in their lives, 9-11, financial crisis, COVID … and the wanting to return to a time when they were safe.” Fat chance.
“How do we intelligently acknowledge the world we’re in now and move forward instead of returning to ‘safety’?” And how do you measure the dimensions of the “real world” when it includes the unmapped horizons of the digital world that’s now pretty much inseparable. Salmon thinks about things like that, in their plays and in coffee shops.
At 32, they didn’t entirely grow up online (so to speak), “the technology that has literally changed our brains. How we interact with the world and how we see the world on that structural level is completely different.” But Salmon’s kind of theatre takes that into account. Subscribe or Like, set in 2018, includes “real live people doing something onstage with us there in the audience,” and projections that aren’t just there to be pretty.
So the technology of the production directed by Kate Ryan of Plain Jane Theatre is complicated; video imagery and memory are part of the present of the play. “It’s a dream team,” says Salmon of a set design by Stephanie Bahniuk, musical score by Darrin Hagen, video productions by Ian Jackson, lighting by Roy Jackson.
“Each scene has to feel fast and furious like a YouTube video, both a form and a style choice.” And because video is “a real thing that’s happened, time is all over the place.” But never fear, we won’t be lost in time. Subscribe or Like is the only play of the season with “a handy subscriber counter” onstage, from a handful to 10s of thousands, to remind us where we are in the story.
Subscribe or Like
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Liam Salmon
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Gabby Bernard, Geoffrey Simon Brown
Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd
Running: through June 11