HotCity Theatre Goes Social With The World Premiere of Lia Romeo’s “Connected”
Peter Panda

On Monday, a friend asked if anyone wanted to go see the latest HotCity Theatre production “Connected”. Fresh off the annoyance of the many Super Bowl ads’ weak attempts to socialize their commercials (50%), when I saw that the show had created Facebook profiles for its main characters, I was intrigued. And at last night’s world premiere of Lia Romeo’s show, I was impressed.

First of all, the show runs through the 23rd of February, so I highly suggest you buy tickets right now. I promise this blog post isn’t going to be a theatrical review, but I might just go again, I liked it that much. It’s at an intimate black-box style theater in the Kranzberg Arts Center in the heart of Grand Center (corner of Olive and Grand), and it’s fantastic. “Connected” combines an excellent script of four vignettes with notably talented performers. Simple and effective set design and lighting top it off.

But I’m no theater expert; I want to comment on social media. I work in an industry that didn’t exist 15 years ago and is now the subject of social commentary in all kinds of entertainment, literature, and even college classes. Major brands, small businesses, nonprofits and even government entities are still scrambling to figure out the best ways to utilize the power and promise of social media to their advantage. Simply put, HotCity Theatre took a play and turned it into an experience.

Two weeks before rehearsals even started, the actors in this small production were charged with creating Facebook profiles for their characters. With hints from Romeo, the actors set up their profile and cover photos, “liked” pages, made friends, and posted status updates. Cast member Jake Bucher, student at Lindenwood University, explains that he literally Googled “What would a bro do” to help him understand his character and create the profile. Helene Estes, junior at Visitation Academy, agreed:

“Every day we were making posts and statuses as our characters, which was great because Jill was always kind of a part of me even though I wasn’t in rehearsal,” explained Estes of her character Jill Beale. Not only is making a Facebook profile an excellent way to understand and create your character, but it also encouraged interaction and bonding among the actors before even meeting in real life (as can happen in the digital world).

I befriended each of the characters before the show, and I admit I was excited to have a heads-up about some of the characters before the show was ever even performed. They only created five profiles on Facebook, so I still got to discover 15 other characters throughout the 90 minute show, but seeing the conversations did help me get in the world of high school social media drama (including my 28-year-old self having to Google HMU to learn that it means “hit me up”).

“We didn’t just want to put ads up,” said Director Chuck Harper in a KWMU interview last week. Indeed, I had not heard of the show at all, but I was suddenly devoting a little time each day to seeing what else I could learn about it and who might be interested to hear. The production also included attention to detail such as the opening screen; the show’s start included a projection of a chatroom conversation, complete with sexual innuendo. But as the chatters slyly weaved in the story of going to a theater, having to turn off their cell phones, and raving about HotCity and how they might even donate after the show, the audience was laughing already. Theater-goers expect someone to make those announcements but nobody expected to be hanging on the every acronym-laden sentence of an online avatar telling them to do so.

As for the content of the play, playwright Lia Romeo explains in a KWMU interview last week that she didn’t have an agenda, but she did have messages to communicate. I quite agree with that summary; the social commentary was clear but executed in such a way that I didn’t feel attacked or overwhelmed. The smart writing and remarkable acting delivered powerful messages about the implications of social media without hitting you over the head. Although all four storylines were loosely tied to high school in some way, the concepts were universal and this was not just about how high schoolers react to social media. One awkward girl becomes an overnight YouTube sensation and deals with the ramifications of infamy vs fame. Two students prank their teacher on an online dating site and end up having a very honest conversation about loneliness. The popular girl stereotype, panicked at trying to follow her Facebook feed to find the hottest party, ends up drunkenly confessing to her sadness when her many Facebook “friends” did not show up to her dad’s funeral. And a recent graduate grapples with her only social competence existing within her World of Warcraft community.

Not many experiences make me want to go online and connect, review or report afterward. But I felt compelled to find HotCity Theatre online, research the playwright and actors, send personal messages of positive feedback to the cast’s fake profiles, and encourage friends to go see this show. The medium is the message. Well done HotCity!

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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