Simping for Harry Styles? Rising’s youngest performers are with you

Director Jackson Castiglione first met his ensemble of young performers, aged between 11 and 22, in April 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold in Australia. Auditions for Anything & Everything, part of this year’s RISING festival, were online and what followed was eight months of intense conversations during weekly video hook-ups. Then, in December, something extraordinary happened: they all met in person.

“I remember seeing Ebony [Macpherson] for the first time and thinking how tall they were, like a gothic Valkyrie warrior,” Castiglione says of one ensemble member. “I’m not particularly tall, so it was a little bit confronting! Once we began meeting IRL [in real life], we still needed to build a physical trust but we had a language already established. This felt encouraging.”

Anything & Everything is a live performance by Platform Arts and infinity ensemble about young people and their relationship to both online and IRL spaces, exploring issues such as connection, identity and consent. The show is one of several in Rising that investigate how we use technology to interpret ourselves and others – often through a lens supported by chips, algorithms and digital filters, via hashtags, memes, emojis, selfies, curating and marketing.

Cast members wrangle relationships and technology during rehearsals for Anything & Everything.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Castiglione says the video meetings included conversations about everything from personal interests to deep metaphysics. “The group became a place for ensemble members to hang out and talk about culture and identity during this extraordinarily unusual period. Essentially, we spent the lockdowns forming a creative language together.”

In one exchange that reflects the speed with which young people adopt new language, two ensemble members discuss the meaning of “simping”. “It’s just a slang term that means you’re sort of like, I wouldn’t say ‘infatuated with someone’, that’s a bit dramatic. But you just really like them,” explains one. “I wouldn’t say, ‘I simp you.’ Like, you would be simping for someone … So it basically means, like, I’m simping for Harry Styles, you know? It used to be used in a misogynistic way among teenagers. But that was like almost two years ago. Now it’s more like, ‘Oh, I’m simping’. Like it just means that, I’m sort of ‘down bad’, you know?”

During their IRL sessions, ensemble members stepped back and realised that even without the pandemic forcing them online, their lives are highly mediated. “In some ways, they are forming their identity through social media and mediation,” Castiglione says. “I wouldn’t call myself young any more [he is 46], but the relationship that younger people have with technology is stratospherically different to the relationship I have.”

Director Jackson Castiglione: “The relationship that younger people have with technology is stratospherically different to the relationship I have.”Credit:Scott McNaughton

Anything & Everything is set in a TV studio, using seven live cameras, all operated by the ensemble on stage. It is tightly scripted and choreographed, despite the appearance of being in construction. Performers film themselves and one another, and the audience simultaneously watches the live performance and the construction of the screen performance, projected onto a main screen and various other small screens. Video designer Rhian Hinkley works with the screen content, turning it into what Castiglione describes as “a moving kaleidoscopic artwork”.

“The construction of [the ensemble members’] own images, originally focused on a single image in traditional media, starts to become replicated into multiple images,” he says. “Through our online lives, we can be multiple people simultaneously.”

For Macpherson, leaping from online into “such a welcoming, bustling space” has been heavenly – and, now being IRL, the cast’s growing confidence using technology has been notable.

Ebony Macpherson: “We exist outside of Instagram more than we do inside of it.″⁣Credit:Sarah Walker

“It’s very easy to assume technical literacy in younger people, but for the most part the average teen only knows ‘turn it off and on again’,” they say. “As we’ve worked in the space, the cameras and lights stopped being terrifying pieces of tech that one can’t touch, and instead extensions of the performance. All of the cast’s initial shyness has become a candid playfulness with the tech, and it’s a relationship that grows as we work.”

Anything & Everything explores the way young people present themselves online. Credit:Scott McNaughton

Even so, Macpherson, who is 22, has never lived without the internet. “As I grew up computers just got slimmer, smaller and faster. Technology has been entrenched in my education, entertainment and identity since day one, so it has certainly shaped how I present.

“I think creatively it’s an amazing medium. I can be anyone at any time, share my thoughts with anyone any time, and react to history as it happens with a heart react. Naturally, it can be overstimulating and I can fall into a doomscroll. But for the most part, technology is just present in my life. It shapes who I am but it doesn’t hold that over me either; we exist outside of Instagram more than we do inside of it.”

As Castiglione has also realised, younger people have much more agency in the way they present themselves online than he’d assumed. “They have less concern and fear around the sharing of their image,” he says. “Sometimes people think it is all negative, but to a lot of young people, they are far more aware of how they are coming across. Technology is a bit like the way rock ‘n’ roll was once viewed: it’s the devil and Elvis is moving his hips!”

Likewise in Set Piece, another RISING work, Anna Breckon (from a cinema background) and Nat Randall (performance) have combined their areas of expertise to devise an extraordinary stage arrangement using technology to augment the usual theatre experience.

Cameras offer “a different sort of closeness” in Set Piece.

Audiences are in two groups, separated by a raised stage upon which the set (resembling an apartment) has been constructed. These views of the stage are supplemented by nine different camera views projected onto screens above the stage. Three bird’s-eye cameras film from on high, while four operators with handheld cameras move around the sides of the set, focusing in and out on the performers. The idea, say Randall and Breckon, is to downplay the focus on plot and emphasise relationships over narrative.

As Breckon says, the cameras enable cinematic conventions, such as extreme close-ups, to be used. “This camera work heightens the emotional qualities because it gives the audience a sense of proximity. The cameras offer a different sort of closeness.”

Close-ups are also central to Back to Back Theatre’s Single Channel Video, in which a six-by-four metre screen in the State Library of Victoria’s Create Quarter looks at first like an art installation.

On screen will be an eclectic series of objects – from skull collections and mythology books to gaming devices and Britney Spears ephemera. Owners’ voices will be heard discussing them: we won’t see their faces, just their hands touching their cherished objects.

What appears to be an episode of Antiques Roadshow is revealed as something else in Single Channel Video.Credit:Jeff Busby

In fact, this is a live performance being projected from behind the screen, and audience members will have a chance to participate. As performer Scott Price says, the show’s format is a bit like an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, likens the format to the incredibly popular YouTube “unboxing” phenomenon.

Gladwin says there is something very dreamlike about the way we only see objects and hands in Single Channel Video. “There is something informative about not seeing the faces,” he says. “We are used to associating someone’s character with their face. Single Channel Video not only opens up performance to a range of people who don’t feel comfortable on the stage, bringing a certain sense of anonymity, but also to speaking in a stream of consciousness about the object they’ve chosen.

“Ultimately, people might be talking about an object, but what we are really seeing is an insight into themselves.”

Anything & Everything is at ACMI, June 3-12; Set Piece is at Meat Market, June 10-12; Single Channel Video is at the State Library, June 9-12.

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