INTERVIEW: Jessica Enemokwu, ‘F Off’, National Youth Theatre

‘F Off’, National Youth Theatre

 

  ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People’.

  A fitting slogan, perhaps, for the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal of 2018.

  Whilst Facebook users were innocently preoccupied making social connections, or ‘friends’, via this popular social media platform, data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica was harvesting the personal data of millions, in order to influence public opinion, particularly in a political sense.

  In March 2018, it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica, a company combining data analysis with behavioural sciences, had been acquiring personally identifiable information (personal information that can be used to identify, locate or contact a person) of potentially 87 million Facebook users, if not more, since 2014, after a researcher had told Facebook he was collecting information for academic purposes.

  27,000 Facebook users completed a survey on a Facebook app entitled, ‘This Is Your Digital Life’, however personal information – regarding profile, birthday and location – was collected, not only from those that had opted to complete the survey, but also from all those in their social network, their ‘friends’. This information was converted into psychographic profiles, and was paid for by political organisations, who took advantage of this date breach by using this information to target potential voters with personalised advertisements, in an attempt to manipulate their political choices (as was discovered to have happened in the 2015 and 16 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and of Donald Trump, and in the 2016 Brexit vote).

  This was a data breach on an unprecedented scale, and quite rightly caused public outcry, leading to many discussion surrounding ethical standards, even legislation, with regards to social media, as users were exploited, their privacy, and importantly, their right to privacy, violated.

  An immediate response to this scandal, National Youth Theatre (NYT) production ‘F Off’, described as a ‘ground-breaking new show exploring the impact of social media on mental health’ will run at London’s Criterion Theatre on 20th August, for one day only.

  The piece, partially-scripted by award-winning playwright Tatty Hennessy, and directed by artistic director of the NYT, Paul Roseby, explores the highs and lows of social media, probing its dark depths, revealing the issues faced by the digitally native youths of today, commonly referred to as the ‘Facebook Generation’, and the implications it can have on our mental health.

  Social media is put in the dock, interrogated, and left defenceless, with nowhere to turn as this honest and shocking piece of devised theatre leaves no stone unturned, in its powerful attempts to question the unstoppable rise of social media.

  I spoke to actress Jessica Enemokwu ahead of her performance, who provided an insightful and very clear window into, not only the production itself, but into the concept of social media as a whole, and her powerful messages, and rather timely warnings, should be heeded by all.

  Jessica began by explaining that, during the production, a total of four story-lines are dipped into, each one highlighting just how social media and technology affects our lives, but each doing so in a different way. One looks directly at the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, and the issues surrounding the leaking of users’ personal information; a second explores the concept of ‘Black Twitter’, an online community that proves to be of great benefit to people who are not necessarily around other people like themselves, allowing them to connect across the world, which in turn helps them to better understand, and importantly, to accept and to love, themselves; a third looks at Facebook moderating, inspired by an episode of Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’, entitled, ‘Inside Facebook: Secrets of a Social Network’, which aims to highlight the darker side of Facebook, looking at the secretive world of Facebook moderators, those people who decide what can, and what cannot, be posted, how their decisions are made, and the impact their decisions have on Facebook users; the fourth, at connectivity, and the idea of social media being able to connect people, regardless of distance, ethnicity, etc.

  Regarding her role, Jessica’s is one “embodying social network, to show people how social media can affect people”, whilst also playing the role of a character named Chloe. “Chloe is the partner to the Facebook moderator, and she’s had a difficult past, that plays into how she reacts to the Facebook moderations, and not being able to know what’s being done on Facebook, and how people are protected by Facebook”, Jessica tells us.  

  This piece of theatre, although part-scripted by writer Tatty Hennessy, was part-devised by members of the NYT themselves. Jessica told me of the creative process, beginning with a “research and development week, and in this week, the whole cast came together for the first time, and we did a lot of drama games, to get the energy up, and get us in the creative mood. We did physical theatre workshops, which were run by one of our cast members… We wrote songs together in groups; we split off into groups and used tweets that we’d seen on the news feed, that were quite absurd, out of context, and we used that to create songs that symbolise the news feeds…We also created a lot of small pieces of theatre”. Jessica describes this create coming together and sharing of ideas as a “social media engine room”.

  “We also had social media maps. Each person in the cast would draw out a map of their journey to social media… and each person had to present that to the rest of the cast… I was actually quite surprised to find out that they were some people in the cast who have never had social media which, me being an addict, freaked me out… I didn’t realise there were people out there who aren’t on social media, which is quite an interesting thing, because my mum’s on it, my dad’s on it, my grandparents are on it, everyone, so I just thought, ‘the whole world is connected’. But there are some people who aren’t”. Jessica described this exercise, this examining of her fellow cast member’s journey to social media, as being “really lovely, because we got to get an insight into the cast, and what their lives have been like”.

  Jessica continues, “we even wrote testimonies about the emotional toll of Facebook. We questioned Mark Zuckerberg – we did a hot-seat, where we had Mark in the middle. We all played him at a point, and we had to fire questions at him, whether it was an emotive question, such as ‘Are you lonely?, Are you happy?’, or whether it was an actual question with pure fact, like ‘What is the financial value of Facebook? What is the financial value of the human life?’”.

  “That was how we came up with the process, and the writer Tatty was amazing. She took everything we said, and we said a lot, in the week, she took everything we said, and she went home in the week between ‘research and development’ and rehearsal, and thought about how she could make that into a story that was cohesive, and I have to say, she did an amazing job. In a week, to put all of these stories into one, is brilliant. Everyone’s voice is definitely very clear”.

  This incredible fusion of script, and cast experience, results in a well-balanced piece of theatre and, far from simply writing off social media completely, it helpfully considers its benefits, thereby presenting a strong and well-constructed argument.

  It’s certainly no secret that there ARE many benefits to social media, now an essential part of our lives, the largest of these, perhaps, that it inspires a ‘culture of connectivity’, allowing us to connect with like-minded individuals, making new acquaintances, and rekindling old ones. Social media is, today, a primary basis for meeting new people, and enables the building of virtual communities in which people can self-express, can share ideas, values and opinions, creating an atmosphere of access, openness, and togetherness. The scale, and the quality, of connectivity achieved through social media today is the best it’s ever been, distance no longer a barrier, as people from all corners of the globe can come together, promoting a state of diversity and acceptance.

  I asked Jessica about the benefits of social media that the work takes to heart, and she spoke of the concept of Black Twitter which, as mentioned, forms the basis for one of the piece’s plot-lines. Black Twitter is a cultural identity that expresses itself as a virtual community, focusing on issues of particular interest to, or impacting, the black community, enabling users to share values and ideals in a safe space. Regarding Black Twitter, Jessica explains that, during the cast’s ‘Research and Development week’, a cast member came forward and spoke of this “twitter community full of black people, who discuss… everything you could think of that is a topic that affects young black lives, and how that opens up her world in terms of being able to see what’s out there, what you might not get in your hometown, and I’m the same, being a young black girl, able to see all that. I come from quite a white area, so I’ve never really been exposed to that, so I’m able to use social media to find out ways to take care of myself, things to do, politics, and ideas, and concepts in the creative world that I’d never really heard of before, so that’s a benefit”. It is heartwarming to hear that, not only is such a benefit, such a promotion of diversity, explored in the piece, but it is also one of benefit to Jessica personally, and we hear of many first-hand accounts of people having positive experiences on social media. “Other benefits have been to see yourself reflected in other people, and being able to connect with families who are far away, or to meet people who are outside of your area”.

  I asked Jessica if she’d had any notable positive experiences with social media on a personal level, and she instantly proclaimed that “it’s harder to remember the positives than it is to remember the negatives. I think the negatives stay with you”.

  However, Jessica goes on to say that, whilst a positive may be in the form of, “I got this many likes, or this many comments, that’s just fleeting positivity. You feel good about it for a second. Later on, when you reflect on it, you can’t really remember how many likes you got on this picture, and how it made you feel, how many comments you got saying, ‘you look good in that’, so I don’t think the positives are necessarily enough for me”.

  Although, Jessica explains that what she does find useful when it comes to social media is “finding out about different politics, about what it is to be a black woman in modern society, and connecting with other people who had similar ideas to me…That would be a highlight of social media for me, just the ability to educate myself, in a way that I couldn’t in school, or with my peers from my hometown, so that was quite nice; it opened up a lot of doors for me”.

  Despite these benefits, however, social media has been linked to a dramatic increase, and can therefore be viewed as a pathway to, poor mental health, detrimental to our overall well being. Adolescents particularly affected, the dangers of social media range from such things as low self-esteem, low self-worth, self-doubt, unrealistic expectations of life, feelings of disappointment and decreased satisfaction with our own lives, to sleep disturbances, emotional detachment, stress, anxiety, depression, and increased suicide risk. In fact, new terms have been introduced into our everyday language, to cater for such unprecedented behaviour, that was not seen prior to excessive internet use – phrases such as ‘Facebook Envy’, ‘Facebook Depression’, and ‘Facebook Addiction Disorder’, all showing just how current, how topical this problem is, one that is not only unstoppable, but has, until recently, been indescribable, so much so the need for new terms coming into existence is demanded. The piece honestly explores the dangers of social media, with a particular focus on it positive correlation with poorer mental health.

  When asked if she’d personally had any negative experiences on social media, Jessica shared, “The home town that I come from had a culture of ‘twitter beef’, where people would call each other out on twitter about random things, and you’d never speak to them in real life”. Jessica tells me that people responded quite negatively to something she decided to tweet, and she got caught up in “quite a nasty argument”, people even commenting about it the following day at school, leaving Jessica feeling “quite alone, and almost attacked”, and this is just one example of countess where people are left feeling such a way. In fact, it is not uncommon for threats of violence made online, to becomes manifest offline…

  Jessica goes on to explain that members of the cast deleted their social media for two days, the result that “a lot of the people who tend to use it a lot realised that the way they used it wasn’t healthy; we tended to compare ourselves to photo-shopped images, and we’ve had a few people in the cast tell us stories about how social media led to eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and the addictive quality of social media, so we end up being on it all the time, just scrolling, never really taking anything in, never being socially communicative, but more or less just watching people, just being a voyeur of life, and not taking part, and it disconnects you”. A voyeur of life – a beautifully poetic, yet bluntly effective, way of looking at it – does our social media use resign us to watching life pass us by, distracting us from actually partaking in it ourselves?

  I asked Jessica how she personally responded to abstaining from social media for two days, and her answer was, really, quite empowering – “I personally would describe myself as addicted to social media. I’m on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook – everything, everyday. If I’m travelling, if I’m walking, I’ll be on my phone, scrolling, posting, things like that. So when Paul (director) initially dropped the idea… I was absolutely shaking. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to handle it; didn’t think I’d be able to it. But I ended up feeling a lot more free. I didn’t feel like I had to post things for people to see, I didn’t feel like I had to be accountable for anyone else. I was able to think properly… I hadn’t been able to think for a while, I’d forgotten HOW to think, so I went on a lot of walks, and I’d just think about life, and what I’m doing. I’d have a word document on my phone, and I would just type all these feelings and thoughts onto this word document… it allowed me to be able to reflect, so my head felt a lot less busy, and also I was able to better connect with my friends”. This is not only a helpful, but an achievable step, one we should all try and do, as often as we can.

  “Social media can often be fuelled by comparison, and jealousy. It felt so good to be free of it,  and when I did finally get it back in the morning, I actually felt a lot worse than I had for the last few days. It wasn’t a good feeling at all to get my social media back, so I tried to delete it again, and try to stay off it until the show, to reduce the amount of time I spend on it, because it’s not useful for my life at all”.

  I asked Jessica, based on her experience here, when she thought it would be appropriate for us to log off, how we should know when to call time on our social media use. Her response, “It should just be done. Maybe once a month, if everyone has maybe a few days where they take time away from social media and see if they can handle it. Before you go to bed and when you wake up, you need to take time to have your own little ritual, whether that be to read a book, or to talk to your family properly…anything to connect yourself mentally with the day… Take time off social media… I’ve definitely been trying to do that”.

  When asked why theatre might be considered important in terms of educating, of raising awareness, of such topical issues as social media, data protection, and mental health, Jessica responds, “I think it’s important because… I don’t think you can fully encapsulate all the emotions, and really understand something, until you see it on a stage, because you can see different types of people, and how it affects them, and new ways for it to be approached.  I think, when you go to see theatre, you’re expecting to be engaged, and to watch a story, but to actually have to really listen, and think, ‘this is actually very honest’ – because I would say that the play is really really honest about the way that social media is, and how the Cambridge Analytica Scandal has affected us, so I think being able to see that honesty on stage makes you reflect – you would go home and think. It’s important for theatre to make you think, and not to just be a thing you enjoy, that’s why it’s great to talk about things like this”.

  In addition to the implications of social media on mental health, the piece also explores the concept of data protection. Once shared, a person’s information is no longer private. We should always be mindful, be aware, of what we choose to share, and who we choose to share it with. People are sharing more today than ever before, regularly posting every aspect, every minuscule detail, of their personal lives, an act now considered the norm, so much so, we engage in such behaviour routinely, perhaps instinctively, often with little or no concern for privacy, sometimes posting without so much as a second though. Perhaps there is an ignorance (which ought to be addressed) when it comes to realising just how accessible our information really is – how easy it is for data-mining companies and other interested third-parties to acquire, buy, and share, our personal data, many doing so for their own personal gain, or profit. No wonder it is said so often that “privacy is dead”. Think before you post!

  The cast of ‘F Off’ is made up of 30 young voices, aged 16-25, members of the digitally native generation, who have been assembled from all over the country, from the Shetland Islands, right down to the south coast, each of whom brings their own personal experiences to the piece. Diversity has never been more important in theatre than it is now, and this is primarily due to the fact that it reflects life – it reflects the society we are living in now, honest in its portrayal. Regarding such diverse casting, Jessica states, “I think it’s so important… it’s about education, and learning about different aspects of life, and everyone’s got a different experience with social media, and without diversity, we wouldn’t be able to get a well-rounded, or a firm, explanation, of what the experience has been, and I think to have that casting is brilliant”. Jessica told me of a member of the cast that comes from a remote community in the Shetland Islands, and of another who travels three hours daily to attend rehearsals. She explains that shared experience has brought them together, allowing them to see that there are people out there – however far – that share similar views to themselves.

  Jessica also states that the cast is “very ethnically diverse as well which again is very important… people are able to see themselves reflected in social media… Things like privilege were discussed, identity, sexual identity, and everyone in the room had a very different sense of identity, so I think, unless we wanted to tell the exact same story the whole way through, we need a diverse cast to get that interesting story, to get the ups and downs, to really understand how much Facebook and social media truly affects us. Facebook is open to everyone, everyone’s on Facebook… it’s quite good that we’re able to reflect Facebook in the cast”.

  Jessica also spoke to me about the importance of theatre companies such as the NYT, who are committed to the development of young people, to encouraging and nurturing new and emerging talent – “I think it’s really important to have because it’s such a big figurehead in youth theatre. When I first found out about it, I was so determined to get in, to be there and meet new people. When I went on my summer course, I learnt a lot about myself, about how to act, but also how to deal with other people. A big part of NYT is respect, education, a cohesive team effort…They’ve got the new audition actor’s fund, and they’ve got bursaries, things like that, so people from different financial backgrounds who may not be able to afford other opportunities that are out there… actually finally able to get into it… It’s really good that people who have that raw talent are being able to learn… it’s an equaliser in the industry… it allows people get to the same level as people who have been given an advantage”.

  If you’re still wondering why you should see this show, Jessica urges us, “People should come and see the show if they want to have their heads entirely flipped upside down, because even the funniest parts of the show are still saying something. There’s a part where we’ve got a magician, and he’s doing some pretty funny tricks, but when you really listen, and you take a second to think about it, and step back, you realise how insidious the information is, in the way that social media is really shown. Even though you’re having a good times, and there’s moments where you’ll laugh – take a second to think about it, and you’ll be shocked.  Every couple of seconds, every minute, you end up getting shocked. It’s honest, everything it says is honest, there are no exaggerations, about what Facebook does or what social media does, so people realise that this is actually what’s happening. They see it and think, ‘This is so funny, this is so exaggerated, that will never happen’, then they find out, ‘This is actually happening every day’. It’s just a mind-blowing experience”.

  Jessica provides helpful and friendly warnings – warnings that are needed, now, more than ever – stating that “the main thing I would want the audience to take away from the piece is just really, see all sides of things on social media. I think we tend to see what’s on social media as viable, we swear by it, and think, ‘OK, it’s feasible, this is exactly what’s going on’, but there’s so much fake news out there, you have to ask, ‘Is this true?’. There’s so much targeted news out there… Don’t take it at face value. Do extra research, really really understand what you’re reading, and what you’re signing up to, when it comes to things like the news, and politics, and also, its understanding that we need to be careful on social media, because the companies aren’t building it to protect us, they’re building it as a business. Social media is a business, so they’re not really out there to protect us… We need to take our own precautions, and also to improve education on what social media is able to do, because I think legislation and education is not moving at a fast enough pace. Social media is moving at a way faster pace, like all technology, compared to what we can humanly do in education, and making more that can protect us”.

  Finally, and significantly, Jessica ends by encouraging us, urging us, to “take a break, understand, look and reflect on your social media. Is it healthy, is it adding to your life, or is it making your quality of life a lot worse?”.

If your answer is the latter, LOG OFF!

 

  According to the official website of Cambridge Analytica, their primary aim is to  “change audience behaviour”.

  Well, this is exactly what the National Youth Theatre aim to do with this production – but in the best and most honest way – by inspiring positive change, by motivating people to take action that will only be of benefit to them, with regards their social media usage, in terms of how often they are using social media, what they are sharing, and who they are sharing it with, and taking active steps to protect personal data. Indeed, it’s such honest, raw theatre, that strives to inform, to educate, and to encourage, whilst remaining entertaining,  that introduces audiences to clearer ways of thinking, providing clarity and light during these dark times.

 

‘F Off’ will run on 20thAugust 2018 at the Criterion Theatre – BUY TICKETS

http://www.nyt.org.uk

 

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