Switchboard

Thu 18th – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Becky Wilson

at 17:24 on 28th Aug 2016

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The plotline for ‘Switchboard’ is laid out for audiences through a trail of voicemails and texts. This ‘24-hour community experience’ revolves around the eponymous virtual host, some faceless characters, and – crucially – our smartphones. The audience is tasked with tiny jobs throughout the 24-hour period, and directed to various vaguely ominous locations across Edinburgh.

It would be wrong to label this experience theatre. With the exception of a brief sign-up session and a thirty-minute send off, the entire drama unfolds in the palm of your hand. This is certainly an original concept – and one for which Produced Moon should be credited – however, the plot depends quite heavily upon audience co-operation. To truly get beneath the skin of the story and feel its impact, Fringe punters have to dedicate a considerable amount of time to traversing the city, chatting online, and listening to often lengthy sound clips. In a city with so much else going on, at a time when there is so much else to see, I personally lack the motivation to give this story the attention it deserves.

This is at the root of ‘Switchboard’’s problem. Dealing with homophobia and its emotional repercussions, this show aims to pack a powerful punch. But unlike traditional theatre, when our relationship with characters is immediate and intense, this gradual, virtual form of storytelling renders it very difficult for us to become personally invested in the unfolding action. Indeed, the unfortunate chasm between ‘Switchboard’’s hard-hitting subject matter, and the audience’s lukewarm reception (evidenced by the decline in numbers at our final meeting) demonstrates the flaws in setting a story almost completely online.

There are, nevertheless, some redeeming features. Being asked to loiter around a phone box at night, and leave secret messages on a tree is, admittedly, a rather exciting prospect for anyone brought up on detective stories. Moreover, the character of Switchboard’s real-life performance is passionate and earnest, her attempts to engage us in LGBT issues admirable. She does manage to provoke a potent discussion about activism, though there is little scope or time to expand on these issues in much depth.

Tackling the LGBT experience in Edinburgh, online anonymity and the power of community, ‘Switchboard’ has some interesting ideas at its core. With a truly committed audience and perhaps greater real-life interaction, the show would have dramatic and political mileage. Unfortunately, in its current guise, I’m not sure it quite works.

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Ed Grimble

at 11:35 on 29th Aug 2016

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Being something of a technological Neanderthal, I was a little skeptical about diving into an event billed as ‘a 24-hour community experience for you and your smartphone’. Unlike so many hyperbolic and misleading show summaries that proliferate the Fringe catalogue, this description of ‘Switchboard’ is pretty accurate. Produced Moon here explore the issues surrounding LGBT groups, the nature of efforts to make meaningful social change, and also how the smartphone- that paradoxically connecting and isolating modern necessity- can be used to germinate new communities among strangers.

After a short log-in session (where I predictability make a mess of what was a simple tech-task) and a hand shake with our fellow Forum members, we all head back out into the urban melee of central Edinburgh. It is worth noting that, with an audience of only five members, perhaps a lot of the community feel that ‘Switchboard’ has the potential to foster is lost due to underpopulation. Over the next 23 hours all of us are encouraged to ‘check in’ at various locations around Edinburgh, and to upload text and images to our own private ‘Forum’: this is something akin to a Facebook news feed, but only accessible to the people in our ‘Switchboard’ session. Via text message some of the audience would also be sent hyperlinks that yielded video messages or strange tasks, such as to walk along a pavement imagining oneself as a 1930s police officer on the beat. Engagement with these messages, videos, and tasks does require some attention and commitment- something that the incessant business of the Fringe does not like to offer. In order to get the most from the ‘Switchboard’, the audience must not enter into it half-heartedly. This become a little tricky when the numbers are crunches and one realises that what is described as ’24 hours’ actually only yields a little over eight hours of potential interaction time, due to overnight closure etc.

A plenary session on the Meadows with our temporary community yields far more complex themes than its half an hour running time might suggest. ‘Switchboard’ is a project at one about the LGBT community, and how meaningful social change can only be achieved if the discussion is inclusive; to limit the dialogue to those with first hand experience of the issues at hand will only atomise our society, and will rob those who want to help of the chance to do so, lest they be branded ignorant or unqualified to speak of something of which they have no direct experience.

What makes ‘Switchboard’ so interesting, is that these sociological issues of identity and gender politics are interwoven with an examination of the paradoxes of our interconnected, technological era. We are at once only a text message away from anyone in the world, and yet the anonymity of the smartphone, the blog, the social media avatar, mean that any notion of a concrete identity is meaningless- who we are (or, more accurately, who other people think we are) is totally malleable and subject to alteration and embellishment.

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