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Finding the truth in the digital age


In the era of Mike Daisey making up facts for his stories about Apple factory workers in China, or the uproar over the motives behind the recent KONY video, we have to start asking ourselves how real these real world videos really are. What’s going on outside the frame of a YouTube video? What’s true? And, who decides?

These are the central questions of FWD: Life Gone Viral, a new play at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco. It uses Oprah Winfrey, Russian spies, viral videos, cancer, YouTube, and robotic flies on the wall to look at what revealing yourself to complete strangers does to the people you know (and who know you) the best.

The backdrop of the play is simple—a nondescript desk and an office chair sit on an otherwise bare stage. Two actors—Jeri Lynn Cohen and Charlie Varon—are having a conversation. Cohen plays an oncologist, and Varon plays her patient. He’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But, there’s been a mistake. As it turns out, he doesn’t have cancer at all.

Enter the third character of the play, a wildly popular homemade YouTube video. It features a dying man telling his viewers to let go of blame, and to do exactly what they want with their lives, completely guilt-free. It’s been watched by 1.2 million people—including Varon’s character—who, up until a few minutes ago, thought he was about to die.

“How did he know that I needed to stop blaming myself?” says Varon’s character. “And how did he get to 1.2 million views in a week if he’s unknown? People are taking this guy’s advice. They’re selling their houses. He said, ‘I am going on a hot air balloon ride over three continents and you should do whatever you want to do before you die! Play the tuba, wrestle an alligator.’”

Cohen, playing the character of the oncologist, knows that video very well. “You must be talking about that Cancer of Blame video,” she says. The video was made by her ex-husband, Donald. And she’s quick to point out the inaccuracies of her ex’s video message.

“He says children are the most important thing,” says the oncologist. “And then people watch and think, ‘Oh, the poor father.’ Well, he cannot remember to pick up his kids on the weekend. He doesn't care to know when his son's birthday is. Oh, family, that's the most important thing?! If it's the most important thing, then don't cheat on your wife! How do you define family, Donald?”

Without ever leaving the stage, Varon and Cohen use accents and body language to transform themselves into a total of eight different characters—including ex-spouses, a Russian spy, and the new Vice President of Public Relations for the Susan Komen Foundation. In this scene, Varon plays Donald, the doctor’s ex-husband who made the Cancer of Blame video:

“I get 200 emails a day thanking me for my video,” says Varon as Donald. “To which I say, don’t thank me, thank Oprah. Oprah is the mother of YouTube. History will look back and say ours was the time society decided to give up its secrets.”

Varon, who co-wrote the play with Cohen and director David Ford, says giving up our secrets is the central theme of the play.  It first occurred to him a few years ago when someone forwarded him a YouTube video called “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

It’s a talk given by 47-year-old professor Randy Pausch, who knew he only had a few months left to live. In the video, Pausch stands at a lectern and shows slides of his CAT scans. He then drops to the ground, does several push-ups, and springs back to the microphone to deliver his message.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt,” he says. “Just how we play the hand.”

Randy Pausch died a few months after the lecture, but the video has had more than 14 million views, and started a trend in people posting end of life videos.

Charlie Varon calls these videos a form of “last minute exhibitionism.” But actor Jeri Lynn Cohen has a different take.

“I totally get it,” says Cohen. “I’m a cancer survivor and I have seen this time and time again with friends of mine, members of my support group. The need to tell your story. The need to share it. There’s something very healing in that.”

“Right,” says Varon. “But 20 years ago, you could share it, but you wouldn’t be sharing it with strangers, necessarily. It’s so easy to share it with strangers.”

“That’s true,” says Cohen. “But I understand the desire to do it. And I don’t necessarily think of it as exhibitionism.”

“And this is why we have a play,” says David Ford, who co-wrote and directed the play. “This tension right here.”

Ford says it was this tension that led them to look more closely at how the instantaneous nature of the Internet affects the way we understand, and live, our lives.

“In an age of information, you’ve got to look very hard to find the truth,” says Ford. “But there’s lots of information. The two are not necessarily synonymous.”

Varon agrees. “In a way it feels like we've been swimming for a while in this digital age,” he says. “Maybe what we're doing is taking a little beaker of the water that we've been swimming in and kind of holding it up to the light and saying, 'What is this? What is this we're now swimming in? What is this water? What is this world that now we take for granted?’”

One of Varon’s characters in the play is a Russian entrepreneur. He helps the ex-spouses spy on each other with tiny mechanical drones that look like flies. Because he grew up in the former Soviet Union, he knows all about being watched. He says the digital age is about a new kind of Big Brother—one who watches you while you watch others...and all for one ultimate purpose.

“Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, all the great Internet success stories,” says Varon’s character. “How do they make their money? Surveillance. They collect information. On you. Not for police state. For advertising state.”

And in the advertising state, it seems the danger is that whatever gets the most views –whether it’s exaggerated, edited down, or just plain made up – can become the truth.

FWD: Life Gone Viral is at The Marsh in San Francisco until June 10.