Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice

Review: Then She Fell.

Then She Fell
Kingsland Ward, Maujer Street, Brooklyn, NYC, Third Rail Projects

In Sleep No More, Punchdrunk's fantastically successful New York-based piece of immersive, site-specific theatre, the fourth wall is located “on the audience's face” - on the masks audience members wear as they lope, wander, and sometimes sprint through the space. But in Third Rail's Then She Fell, co-director and performer Zach Morris tells me, there is no such safety net. “We do away with the fourth wall entirely”, he says, as we sit down for coffee at the cheerily dilapidated Cake Shop on New York's Ludlow Street. “The scene you and I shared, for example...”

The last time I sat face to face with Zach Morris, the circumstances were somewhat different. He was a doctor at the Kingsland Hospital, the sometime setting of Then She Fell, which traces the story of Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice Liddell alongside fragmentary and laudanum-hazy glimpses of Carroll's Wonderland. I was, apparently, the newest orderly at the hospital, playing a rigged card game in order to win an position as the caretaker of the savagely imperious Red Queen. No stage, no masks, no tricks of lighting, no enforced silence, separated us. I was acutely conscious of my inability to compose my face into an expression resembling neutrality, or even normalcy. Morris, as the doctor, asked me my name; I managed to mispronounce it.

 Such an invitation borders on the dangerous. Anything can happen in these exchanges, Morris tells me – and from his litany of show stories, it's apparent nearly everything has. Audience members, when prompted by a wide-eyed Alice whether or not they have ever been in love, might, for example, dominate the scene by unburdening memories of painful relationships past. Morris recounts the tale of one elderly couple who, upon encountering the Mad Hatter (played with mesmerizing exuberance by Elizabeth Carena) and being told to take down dictation for the Hatter's letter to her absent creator, began to squabble over her choice of words, so that the Hatter herself ended up writing Carroll to her audience member's specifications. (For my own part, I ended up rather a forceful presence: the Hatter demanded to know what type of head I had, for which I had a shamefully paltry reply.)

Yet the structure of Then She Fell is far from free-form. Audience members are separated and ushered into different spaces (commanded, by an imperious looking nurse, not to open any closed doors), led in threes, twos, and finally solo into various, increasingly intimate, scenes with Carroll's novels' most famous denizens, and with the tormented Carroll himself. (Not all audience members are allowed to witness all scenes – as I realized with some disappointment, as I spotted the Hatter's tea party taking place in a room I was not permitted to enter). Each audience member's experience, Morris tells me, is structured: though we each view scenes in different orders, in a non-linear fashion, our own emotional arc is tightly choreographed: as we, scene by scene, are invited to develop our own stories of nostalgia and loss. Thus did I follow one of the two Alices (one, a note in the Hatter's room hints, for each side of the looking glass), into a room with an empty mirror frame, through which I served as her reflection. Thus did I follow the White Rabbit into a closet of of freshly-painted white roses, watching him perform a virtuosic – and unsettlingly close by – dance with a butcher's knife. Thus – ultimately – did I piece together these fragments of the Kingsland Ward's take on Wonderland, and invented for them – in the absence of linear narrative – my own story.

That, hints Morris, is precisely the point.

If Sleep No More invites moments of deeply personal connection between actor and audience member, then Then She Fell, despite its more intimate size – only fifteen audience members are invited in per night – offers something entirely more bewildering: at once dangerous and controlled. No less than Alice, whose journey through Wonderland owes something to the dizzying contradictions of Victorian childhood, I balanced the twin demands of freedom and restriction, of the terror of answering open-ended questions and the fear of breaking established rules. Like all audience members, I was given a set of keys – with which to explore the set's many locked boxes and cabinets – but, like a guilty child, sprang back in fear from one writing-desk when  Lewis Carroll appeared in the doorway. This freedom to – as Morris puts it - “play within the paradigm” is at once frightening and exhilarating: a perfect mirror of Alice's own, albeit largely fractured, development through the piece, as her encounters with the Red and White Queens take her on a circuitous journey towards womanhood.

Yet, if Then She Fell falls short in any area, it is the relative paucity of such development. The “arc” of the piece, as Morris sees it, is that of the audience, rather than that of the characters themselves. The Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White Queen, even Alice herself – do not change, but rather invite us to assume Alice's role, to change through our encounters with them. Indeed, Morris suggests, the very nature of Then She Fell  – in which audience members are left alone to explore rooms, or asked personal questions, to piece together the puzzle of Alice's story – asks audience members to bring far more of themselves, of their own experiences, of their own lost loves or thwarted childhoods, than traditional theatre can allow. Here, in this liminal space where our outside lives and our assumed roles converge, neither wholly the fictitious realm of the Kingsland Ward nor wholly the bleak Williamsburg streets outside it, Third Rail has created something utterly strange, magnificently surreal: undoubtedly Wonderland.

Jessy Smith as the White Queen. Photograph: Darial Sneed

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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