Cyber warfare sleuthing satisfies research addict

by Kathleen Flaherty, Dramaturg
Playwrights Theatre Centre

I’m a research addict — by profession.

Imagine all the news or scholarship, cartoons or rants about cyber surveillance, censorship and the military industrial complex/security apparatus, hacking, wikileaks, and paranoia — I’m dedicated to absorbing every crumb.

As dramaturg for Foreign Radical I have licence to listen to Glenn Greenwald  talk about Edward Snowdon (“research”), try to wrap my head around how one enters a trap door in a computer program and snatches material (“working!”), read Jason Ng’s book “Blocked on Weibo”   and watch videos on Egyptian graffiti (“really, working”).  The trick is to avoid following only the conversations or intellectual paths I agree with.

My biggest blind spot is inventing dichotomies that aren’t real, that allow me to knock down one side or the other to triumphantly come to a conclusion that fits my politics.  Collaboration helps mitigate that. Jeremy and I send each other snide notes. Tim keeps us focused.

How to apply all the research to making a live documentary piece? I build a chart or a few charts that categorize the information along lines of tension.

It’s the same process as the radio work I’ve done for the CBC Radio program Ideas. I’ve produced or written 100+ Ideas shows since 1995 on subjects ranging from the experience of a trail ride to maps to the 1969 White Paper on Indian Affairs to the novelist Haruki Murakami to the impact of digital media on what we can know.  Many of the subjects were not in areas of my interest, let alone expertise.  One of my own pieces, Risk explored how, despite claims by free-market economists, most of our decision-making is far from rational.  The booklist was over forty books and a hundred articles.  The charts helped keep track of the flow of ideas.

This is what one of my charts for Risk looked like for a day or two:Map of Risk program ideas

I tried to map the hows and whys of the predictable differences between how we evaluate the risks of natural and man-made disasters.  What are the connections between decision theory and behavioural economics?  Between reason and narrative as ways we understand facts?   There is a line along the certainty/uncertainty spectrum along which risk evaluation lies.  One of those dichotomies can easily serve as the dramatic spine of the documentary, the central question that is addressed, the thing that we keep coming back to. So it’s helpful to keep experimenting with them.

The subject matter of Foreign Radical contains so many tensions  – do we develop story around state control vs people power?  liberty or privacy vs security? something else entirely?

Eventually, we’ll have to decide what the piece is about, which struggle to focus on, then commit to it, and leave aside the rest. For now.

Sometime around now too, characters appear, people who seem to be able to articulate some of the most important ideas or stories in the work.  We make lists of central characters and supporting characters, decide who to interview and why, then get in touch, find out if they want to be part of this.

In the case of Extraction –Theatre Conspiracy’s work about Chinese-Canadian relations, translation, the culture happening beneath heated debates over oil, tar sands and pipelines – it was real people and their real stories that were to be featured onstage.   That is one way to go with documentary.

In the mainstream media, the focus on real-life narrative has been relentless in the last few years.  People identify with other people.  No surprise there.  Right now, with Foreign Radical, we’re going a slightly different way.  Because there are so many technical details that we want to share, it feels like expert testimony is required.  So, we’re looking at different ways of talking about human values, human choices, human actions with global repercussions. It feels like we’re onto something with a mixture of documentary material and fiction.

Next: Jeremy Waller, co-creator of Foreign Radical, writes about mixed-reality performance.

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