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The Dramatic Structure of Google and Twitter

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 Leave a Comment

Take a second to recover from that pretentious post title, and then take a few more seconds to consider that search engines and social media both represent shifts in how we acquire knowledge, and as such, create new models for how we experience story.

Still there? The reason I've been thinking about this is because of the unusual structure of The Lesser Seductions of History (our rehearsals being the reason why posts have been sparse of late). It occurred to me after considering this project we're doing that the link between the structure of social media and the play is more than cosmetic.

But first, let's talk about Jason Grote's 1001. After reading Jason's beautiful, dazzling play, I began thinking of it as the first play written in the structure of a search engine. (For those unfamiliar with the play, a visit to Jeffery Jones structural analysis is a good place to start.) This statement in no way diminishes the plays wit, intelligence and heart; rather, it looks at how the play moves. And 1001 moves a lot like a restless mind with Google's home page open.

1001 begins with a single world, and then, as if the play had opened a new tab, searches for a world thematically connected to (or inspired by a detail of) the first; which inspires a new tab and a new search, until the play has moved through a series of worlds, each linked by the search engine's gift to expand every thought into a detailed new frame. With all these worlds open, the play can then move from tab to tab with the knowledge and context gained by them all. This is not the stately turning of pages in a gilded volume. This is an engine of searching.

Does anyone know other plays that work this way? I'd love to see more of them; that such a basic shift in how we experience the world is missing from the dramaturgy of contemporary plays cannot entirely be blamed on the immutable demands of playwriting structure.

The other major shift in how we experience story is through social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. The idea of many narratives being present at once, each evolving in real time, each tweet or status update a trapdoor that opens up into a far more detailed profile and history; the viral spread of thought; the surprising synchronicities and dissonances; the mix of banal and revelation; the private/public performance; the intimacy and distance; the aggregation of like things into a sum greater than the parts; this is a new structure of experiencing story, and all of these ideas are present in the structure The Lesser Seductions of History. Though set in a time before social media, I'm not sure the play could have been written in quite this way without it.

Of course, I hope you won't think about that when you're watching the play; I hope you'll just follow the journey of the characters.

But I'm curious to think more about how these two revolutionary ways of experiencing the world - social media and search engines - can move into our dramaturgy in ways more subtle than simply tweeting during performance; I'm curious to see how plays can learn from the structure of how these forces bring us the world.


  • Mariah MacCarthy said:  

    No plays come to mind immediately, but the first thing I thought of was the TV show Mr. Show - it free-associates, but not in a meandering way. Each new free association gets explored in a new sketch. And, of course, sitcoms where they cut away and devote a hilarious random scene to something that was just mentioned in passing, like Family Guy.

    It's also a bit like dream logic, where you're playing hide and seek with someone and hide in a barn and then suddenly the dream is about the barn instead of hide and seek. So Dream Play comes to mind too.

    I think this is probably the only time in my life where I will ever compare Dream Play and Family Guy.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    Thanks for posting! I actually nearly wrote about Dream Play in the original post, because I feel like there is a difference in the similarities of search engine and dream structure, but when I tried to describe that difference, it slipped through my fingers.

    Which I think may be part of the difference - in search engine world, the other pages you've opened are always available, which allows Jason to easily loop back to different scenes (in the stack Jeffrey describes), whereas in dream structure, that little dog with the broom for a nose sweeps the path away.

    I also think the progression of hyperlinks in SE structure are clearer and more overtly logical than the harsh random dissolves of dream structure; and the sense of control is different. With an SE play, there is a clearly identifiable will at work; with a dream play, it is hard to discern causality. SE is wide-eyed wide awake versus the sleep of dream.

    Hard to put the finger on it, exactly, but I think the differences are there, and important...

  • Isaiah Tanenbaum said:  

    Re: Family Guy. The pattern is a random interchangeable joke, referred to in passing, that's set-up, shown, and then never mentioned again. Don't get me wrong, I love Family Guy, but I think what Gus is driving at with the "will at work" is that these "open tabs" BUILD towards something cohesive, and ideally greater than the sum of its parts.

    Mr. Show is the better example, as are the Tracy Ullman Show and Michael and Michael Have Issues. All of these are television shows that revolve around a single theme but explode it so it can be seen from many different angles, kaleidoscope-like.

  • Isaiah Tanenbaum said:  

    A further thought: I think this discussion may also be related to the "new" comedy we were talking about at the retreat but couldn't quite pin down. 30 Rock is an example of the Many Tab play used for comedic effect, particularly when the various tangentially-related tabs come crashing together at the end of their best episodes.

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