User Not Found

Years ago it was a cliché that if your house burnt down you’d grab the photo albums. After a break up you’d either burn the photos, take them out and reminisce when you felt sad, or clip the significant other out of the photo. Love letters. Now it’s all online. Who has photo albums to run through fire to rescue?  Who even has physical copies of the images of the people they have loved? Our memories increasingly exist in digital form.

User Not Found asks us what we would do if we were left with the decision as to what to do with the online presence of someone with whom we had a strong emotional connection. Would we press the delete all button?

Dante or Die have been to a similar place before with Handle With Care as part of Week 53 at the Lowry. Set in a self-storage unit, that production asked us to question which physical objects were important to us, and highlighted the gulf between physical value, emotional value to the previous owner and emotional value to those left to sort out what was left.

I’ve spent long hours in storage units sorting out my mum’s possessions. She kept every letter she was sent, many of which are in Hungarian and German. Her family went to huge lengths to protect their family photographs as they fled from Budapest in the winter of 1944. Do these matter to me? Do I owe it to her to keep things that were emotionally important to her?

User Not Found takes place after hours in Pot Kettle Black in Manchester. This is a cafe that I know well, I often write here. As I look around at the tables full of audience members wearing headphones and watching smartphones, this feels like my normal world. I love to watch people, wonder where they have come from, where they are going. What are the relationships between pairs of people sat together? Performer Terry Donovan sits at one of our tables and starts to speak. We hear his voice through our headphones, we see exactly what he sees on his smartphone as he scrolls through social media timelines.

This is also a play about grief. My mum died in the summer and the whole concept of grief still feels raw to me. I wonder how our decisions change as we deal with grief?

Terry recounts the story of a relationship through the online footprint that remained. This is a fascinating premise. What do we say about ourselves online? Is the transaction instantaneous or is there a long term point to it. Would we keep the images, the songs, the words?

But this is also very much a play about memories. How do we remember the most important moments of our lives? Finding a song that you loved many years later may seem irrelevant but what if it evokes a memory and an emotion? What appears to be a throwaway online post might unlock the deepest, most powerful moments in a relationship.

At the end of every year I look back and identify one day that I would relive if I could. It’s a silly thing to do but it makes me see that for all the unmemorable days there are days of such intense beauty that make us who we are. What is conspicuous is that when I look through my social media, none of these events have ever been recorded online. The perfect moments exist in a tiny space between the eyes of two people.

I suspect we have got to a point where we believe that so much is recorded online that surely everything is recorded. Surely if you look through someone’s social media accounts you build a picture of the person? Terry’s account of his relationship with Luka shows this is just not true. Social media histories are as incomplete and selective as physical records. Worse, we can present an image of ourselves that is way more positive than we really are.

At least with photographs we can say ‘that was a really good day,’ knowing the rest of our lives are routine. Who ever says online that their day has been uneventful, boring in fact? Yet that is the reality for our lives and our relationships.

So how much can you tell about a person from their online presence? Terry tells the story, shows us the posts, plays us the music and yes, I think we get a very strong feel for what this relationship was like. But this is a heightened reality and it’s Terry’s interpretation of the posts that makes them what they are.

I have cried in PKB in front of my laptop. I love the way that Terry evokes the feeling that your own world may be falling apart whilst everyone around you, in a public place, is carrying on with their own normality. The way that in a coffee shop we see both everything and nothing. We are endlessly fascinated by what people have to say yet often we hear and see nothing. We have no idea what most people in a coffee shop are watching, writing or reading on their smartphones and laptops.

Perhaps this is what I love most about User Not Found. The way that Terry creates a paradox between the private and the public. On the one hand we believe we see everything and yet, in truth, perhaps we see nothing.

Terry watches a big cat, a leopard I think, enter the coffee shop.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

One Response to “User Not Found”

  1. caroline clegg says:

    what a fascinating and thought provoking blog Dave. Something I often think about as I dont print many photos these days but spend time looking at my old photo albums and re living the days and memories… its not the same scrolling through a phone…
    thank you for sharing this

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