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Adventures in Digital Theater: Or when the comments section strikes back

On President’s Day, I did a live digital reading of a play I’d written called Mayor Pete.

It’s a one-man show about Pete Buttigieg, small-town mayor, former Presidential candidate, and current Secretary of Transportation, who recently made history as America’s first openly gay cabinet member.

Because I’ve been a little wary of doing any long-form content on my theater’s social media, I was ambivalent about the reading itself.

I thought it might be useful to practice performing the piece in front of the one or two people I assumed would be watching in preparation for an in-person production of the show later in the year. Then again, I thought assuming one or two people might show up was already setting the bar way too high.

The only marketing I did for the show was a press release I sent out that, as far as I can tell, got picked up by exactly one news outlet.

Of course, due to the wonder of Google alerts, sometimes one news outlet can be like the chimney in Mary Poppins — sending a ripped up note to a magical nanny land where Julie Andrews is just waiting to come down to earth so she can organize your nursery.

The resulting article was noticed by Pete’s fan club, and they showed up in droves to watch me do a 90-minute play all about their idol.

Unfortunately for them — and I guess, for me — the play is not a cut-and-dried autobiography of Pete. In fact, it’s an imagined version of Pete that presents a fantastical and unfiltered look at him and his brief time in public life. While it doesn’t exactly make him look bad, it’s not striving to present any kind of accurate picture of him.

Guess how well that went over with the fan club?

As I was reading the piece, I made an effort not to look at the comments section, but once I reached the ending, I knew the firing squad was already locked and loaded. It’s funny how, even with a digital audience, you can tell when your work has landed like a parachute made out of titanium. In a moment of great wisdom, I had promised at the top of the reading that once it was over, I would do — deep breath — a Q&A.

Reader, there were so many Qs and I had so few As.

For one thing, many of the people watching the livestream had little-to-no knowledge of theater. That isn’t me being a gatekeeper, but just someone pointing out that some of these people really expected me to simply repeat things Pete has said or read sections of his book Trust like a witness reading a statement into the public record.

Others were more open to the idea that I would be taking liberties, but they felt that I was misrepresenting some of Pete’s views, and they wondered why I would use Pete at all and not just write a play called Generic Gay Mayor Who Runs for President. I tried to think of a tactful way to say “Nobody would watch that” while not exactly admitting that playwrights use public figures in their work to draw interest to it, because I’ve done that once before, and it turns out that while those people are fair game, there’s nothing preventing them from sending you a cease and desist letter all the same.

After about a half hour, I found that most of the people commenting were quite nice, even if they weren’t fans of what I had done. Most thought the play needed to be cut (they’re right) and some openly espoused their love for Pete. I had to be frank and say that I don’t think it’s a wise idea to idolize any politician. One woman accused me of being a “Bernie Bro” and while I was trying to stay cool and collected, I felt steam coming out of my ears like one of those cartoon wolves watching a pretty girl perform in a nightclub act.

Performing to that kind of hostile audience is exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t miss about doing theater, but the truth is, it felt more like theater than anything I’ve done since the start of the pandemic, because if you were trying to embody what stand-up comedy feels like, you’d be dishonest if you told yourself it felt like the time when everybody was laughing and you were nailing every joke.

It’s the same for theater.

While we’re tempted to remember only the good things, I think it’s safe to say that at this point, I’ve started to miss even the bad stuff — like that audience that just isn’t into what you’re doing. The talkback where you feel as though you’re defending your work like it’s a child being bullied on a playground because the kid talks a little too much. Having to grapple with the fact that any new work that elicits a strong response is always preferable to everybody saying, “Good job,” then high-tailing it out of the lobby.

For a half hour after I was finished reading my new play, I was harangued, insulted and criticized. For most people, it would have been a nightmare. An entire comments section that you can’t look away from regaling you with negativity. I had a moment where I wondered if I should simply throw water on my laptop in the hopes that it would be destroyed and I could stop having to explain myself.

It wasn’t until I was on the way home that I thought to myself–

Wow, I missed that.

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