Note: This review is from the 2018 Fringe

When you die, do you want your online presence deleted or kept by your loved ones? That’s the dilemma at the heart of User Not Found, a site-specific piece by theatre company Dante or Die, which takes place in the Jeelie Piece cafe in Tollcross as part of the Traverse’s Festival programme. Audience members get handed a handset to follow as they become embroiled in someone else’s story of bereavement. Dante Or Die’s Co-Artistic Director Terry O’Donovan is the solo performer in the piece and told us more…

What prompted User Not Found?

Three years ago we read an article in The Guardian by a woman called Caroline Twigg in which she questioned what should happen to her husband’s digital legacy after his sudden and unexpected death. Her writing is poignant yet aware, a moving depiction of grief that was magnified through the screen-life of the man she had lost in reality. Immediately after reading her story, we began imagining a Dante or Die-style performance inspired by this contemporary addition to the grieving process. Our audience would see into the online world of someone faced with the questions that go hand in hand with legacy: what should or shouldn’t you read, how has privacy changed now that smartphones and laptops are so entwined with our day-to-day living, and how do our digital identities compare with the “real” us.

What research went into it?

It’s been a fascinating process, involving a variety of interviews and collaborations. Playwright Chris Goode joined us during our Research & Development period last year and has worked with us since. We met with John Troyer at University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society, who has a very interesting take on the subject matter. Early on and throughout we’ve questioned Aleks Krotoski whose chapter on digital afterlife in her book, Untangling the Web, was an excellent resource alongside her BBC4 podcast The Digital Human.

We’ve collaborated with Professor Lib Taylor at University of Reading on a research project exploring how social media has been used to date within contemporary performance. As part of this research we met a group of people from the “death industry” – end of life specialists, a funeral director, solicitors who deal with wills. All of the conversations have fed into the thinking behind the production.

We also ran workshops with a variety of groups including university students and older people creative groups.

How’ve you tackled the technical aspects of the piece and made it work for a café space?

Up to this point the most technical a Dante or Die show had been was using old iPhones to play music in Handle With Care, and inciting rage in our cast of I Do as they tried to make visual voicemail work on cue. We knew we needed artistic yet technical creators who would be able to build the digital world we were imagining. When we met with Luke Alexander and Abhinav Bajpei from a creative digital agency called Marmelo, they seemed to immediately understand the possibilities. Their inventive and detailed approach to both the subject matter and developing the technical language, platform & content for the production has been a continued source of inspiration. They’ve built an app that is entirely interwoven and drives the narrative of the piece, which in this playtext is represented through imagery used within the original production.

Our designer, Zia Bergin-Holly, worked with us from R&D stages and was excited about using wireless technology to build the lighting design for the show. Her task was to design a world that could appear in any café, and yet feel part of the décor and sit within the space. Her work massively impacts the theatricality and emotional development of the narrative.

Yaniv Fridel’s evocative sound design is also key to the storytelling. So many people sit in cafes on their headphones, living in their own little worlds. We’ve replicated that but invite you to sit in somebody else’s world through the sound design and microphone which means you hear everything that my character hears. You’re kind of cocooned in someone else’s world!

How do you think digital media has affected our experience of death and grief?

It seems that everyone we speak to has a story about a loved one’s online presence after death, whether it’s Facebook memorial pages, keeping WhatsApp messages or losing voicemail messages. The digital is so ingrained in our daily life that it’s become as important as boxes of photos or old letters. So, it makes sense that it’s part of what we leave behind us – and therefore what people use to remember us. We spoke a lot about how connected we are with our devices – they hold so much information about us – more than anything ever before. Quite a few people who’ve seen the previews have mentioned that they definitely want their partner to delete all their emails or have had discussions with their family about what they’d like to happen to their online existence afterwards. At first it seems trivial, but then you start to think about the amount of information we leave behind online.

How has creating this work affected your own attitudes to your digital presence?

I’ve actually become a little bit obsessed with monitoring my privacy and online existence. I started listening to an amazing podcast during our research period called Note to Self, which investigates how we can live better lives whilst still living within the digital world. I’ve changed all my location settings and privacy settings, I use Duck Duck Go instead of Google and keep boring my friends and family about it. There are some great people advocating for a more democratic use of digital space, with citizens having more of a say about how we use the incredible technology to create positive opportunities for society rather than commercial gain. I still haven’t deleted my Facebook account – but I’m gearing up to it!

What do you think the future holds for our digital afterlives and how we deal with them?

Well, there are some fascinating services available already. There are ways of creating videos, or writing text messages and emails from beyond the grave. One service allows you to send messages on specific days in the future – your child’s wedding day, an anniversary, a birthday. It’s quite creepy. I listened to a very interesting interview with a woman who had a terminal illness who was planning to leave these messages but when she asked her children if they wanted those messages they both resoundingly said no. We have to keep going back to the question – who is it for – you or the people you leave behind?

Would you delete or keep?

Oh, I still waver between the two. But if I had to choose today, I would choose delete. I have faith that the people who will remember me will remember me without my random Twitter rants and thousands of emails.

User Not Found is @ Traverse at Jeelie Piece Cafe, Edinburgh, from Fri 3 – Sun 26 Aug 2018 (not Mons)

Part of Death on the Fringe 2018