Created and performed by Renae Shadler, Polly’s Party follows Polly Wolly, the pop diva/socialite alter-ego, a character completely fabricated using social media by the true protagonist of the play, Paula. An exploration of the strange divide between the construct of a public, online persona and the reality of their attention-seeking creators seeking comfort in the perception of popularity, this show presented its audience with the rather bleak truth of contemporary culture’s addiction to self-promotion.
Entering the theatre, the audience was asked to please leave their phones on, to feel free to share the experience however they wanted as they watched. Not brave enough to accept an invitation to be a guest at the party, I chose to sit in the stalls. The core message of the show was crystallised from my vantage point – a transparent screen across the front of the stage separated the outside audience from Polly and her guests. A simple yet hugely effective set piece which gave a sense of complete disconnection from Polly. It looked like she was performing inside a fishbowl, and watching from outside felt dirty and voyeuristic.
As her guests entered, Polly revealed everything she’d learnt about them just from their Facebook pages: how many friends they had and who they were; that funny panda meme on their wall; their favourite band, researched by Polly on MySpace – none of this was scripted. But behind Polly’s excited chatter, her friendly personality and seemingly genuine interest in every guest, was a real-life demonstration of the creepier side of Facebook.
The show revolves around Polly responding to friend requests, adding friends of friends and obsessing over Lady Gaga’s Twitter feed, and watching videos on her YouTube account. Like The Gaga Workout:
And Making A Statement:
Every click could be seen from the live projection on the back wall which Polly appeared to control with her mind. I found myself eager to have her notice my friend request, and get excited when she discovered I’d ‘liked’ her status update – I was enacting the exact behaviour Polly’s Party was critiquing.
Throughout the show, the most poignant moments were in her frustration as her account was repeatedly suspended: panicked about her inability to monitor her perceived popularity, the sad, lonely girl who hid behind Polly was revealed. The fabricated identity would start to flail as she forgot the choreography to ‘Poker Face’. After the second suspension, she stepped outside the cage for a cigarette. As she commanded her guests to talk amongst themselves, on the other side of the wall she began to cry – never once looking into the stalls. But Paula didn’t speak, and continued to be a mystery to everyone.
At one point, she began to intone the lyrics to ‘Marry The Night’, claiming that her experience of Gaga was a spiritual one. As she began her dance, it was hard not to notice how awkward and contrived every move looked. It was exactly the kind of dance that Gaga or any other pop diva would perform, but without the massive arena-filling crowd surrounding her the whole scene looked completely absurd and a little pathetic.
Polly’s performance ended abruptly, with the devastating cancellation of her Facebook account. Standing there in her underwear, stripped of the provocative outfit and abrasively bubbly personality, we saw Paula: naked without her online persona. Paula put on her t-shirt and trackies, and as she apologised for herself – for lying, for being so lame – it was interesting to watch her guests’ reactions, sympathising and offering genuine human contact, all of them dancing barefoot to ‘We Found Love’.
As Paula, her voice was muffled behind the glass and I had to smile as the man in the row ahead of me pulled out his phone to check his emails, unwittingly demonstrating the problem this show was addressing: as soon as Polly left, taking away her obnoxious volume and ultra-extroversion, the outside audience lost interest in the performer.
Polly’s Party is a surprisingly insightful commentary on the darker implications of social media. While it’s not the first time anyone’s heard it, the creative methods of interacting with the audience and the subtle design of the show made it the most compelling argument I’ve received for spending less time updating my Facebook and more time engaging with the world around me.