Illness, privacy and reality TV: The Independent interview
with Now You See Me playwright Neal Bell

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Neal Bell
  • Neal Bell
Late-stage lung cancer is certainly no joke. But Claire, the central character in Neil Bell’s new play, NOW YOU SEE ME, has an unexpected ally, of sorts.
It’s her television—even though, a certain David Byrne lyric notwithstanding, they are not good friends.
Bell’s dark comedy, whose world premiere opens Wednesday at Manbites Dog Theater, is a sharp-eyed critique from an industry insider of a medium that has proven, in its own way, to be every bit as metastatic in our culture as the carcinomas are in Claire’s body.

Now You See Me asks to what lengths will a television network go in order to insure what it might call the “human continuity” in its latest smash reality TV series—a show focusing on people who are gravely, if not terminally, ill? Why would anyone watch the show in the first place? And under such circumstances, if a producer offered you a promising new cancer-fighting drug—and a shot at stardom—why might you really not want to sign that contract?

We spoke with Bell for an hour by phone last weekend.

INDEPENDENT: That oddly prescient ’80s TV news network drama Max Headroom was supposedly set “15 minutes into the future.” The world in Now You See Me has a similar sense to it. It’s not tangential to our time, but a logical extension of it.
NEAL BELL: I hope so. While I was writing it, I actually thought that maybe this premise—a reality show about dying people—was so far out there that it went beyond parody into ridiculousness.

But while I was writing it, a British reality TV star named Jade Goody, who’d been a big hit on several different Big Brothers because she was so apparently abrasive and obnoxious, finally ended up on one in India, where she was diagnosed—on camera—as having terminal cancer.

She quit the show, went back to England and basically sold the rights to her death to a television company, which filmed as much as they could of her final month or two. She got married—though she was barely able to walk down the aisle—to the father of her two children. It was a huge media event in England.

And I thought, well, (laughs) I guess I didn’t make it up. It’s actually happening.

As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.”
I think that’s true. It goes beyond the “stranger than fiction” thing. I think cynicism is exactly the right word. You just cannot calculate the bottomless desire or appetite for the most invasive glimpses into people’s lives.

Let’s take a moment with this. In reality shows, multimedia corporations are investing in increasingly invasive exploits into people’s lives, at the same time the legal system has been debating whether there actually is a right of privacy in the United States at all. Can a policeman go through someone’s garbage taken to the street searching for evidence? What are the expectations of privacy in an online chat, or an email an employee sent to a companion through a company’s server? Your script is joining that conversation on a completely different front.
People are not only having their privacy invaded; they’re actually happy to be invaded, or are invading themselves in a certain weird way—either by constantly posting their activities on Facebook, or its reductio ad absurdum, Twitter, where somebody has to tell you, “I just brushed my teeth.”

Gary Trudeau has satirized this on the Doonesbury strip. Fox journalist Roland Hedley has actually published a couple of collections of his “greatest tweets.”
That’s hilarious. I teach at Duke, and in my classrooms, students during a class break all punch onto their computers instead of talking to each other. They’re diving onto their cell phones or their laptops and living their social life there. But it’s odd that they’re not having a social life with these people in the classroom.

Toward the end of one semester I discovered that a student in my class didn’t know the name of the person sitting next to him. I asked, “How is that possible? You’ve been in class for 12 weeks and you don’t even know each other’s names?”

And here is where I get into the “When I was a boy…” kind of talk.

“Back in my day…” (laughs)
But there’s been a change. Go back to Survivor. I remember watching the first couple of series. The first one I found fascinating. The second one had already become a parody of itself.

But there was a terrible moment—I think it was in the second one—where one of the characters / actors / real people got dizzy while standing over a fire and fell into it, and the cameras just kept rolling. Nobody on the crew jumped up to intervene. One of the cast members had to pull him out of the fire and drag him down to the water and throw him in.

And I just thought, “Why am I watching this?”

I really had to take a hard look at myself and just how voyeuristic I was—and I guess we all are, to a certain extent.

Actually, that’s not new either. It’s what Hitchcock was making so many movies about, including Rear Window.

In that moment you’re describing, when the cameraman, the crew don’t drop what they’re doing and intervene with someone who is undeniably being physically injured—possibly quite seriously—what line or lines do you think are being crossed? For the folks on the site when it’s happening, and the people looking in on television?
I think that’s the moment at which you, the viewer, somehow become complicit with the person who isn’t intervening. It all creates this sense of passivity. You’re watching at home; you can’t do anything about it. And the people filming it are representatives of your passivity, because they’re not doing anything about it. They’re just assuming you want to see it play out, as if there weren’t any cameras there, and you just happened to be walking by: the rubbernecking phenomenon.

Their imperative is to film anything, and that’s what they do. And they’re doing it because they think we want to watch it—and they’re correct.

Then the question is, “Why do we want to watch it?” Why do we want to watch people being hurt, as they are on a show like Jackass?
In that season of Survivor, people weren’t getting enough to eat and you actually saw them losing weight in a way that was incredibly disturbing. That was the last Survivor I watched; I found the whole thing so unsettling. But it continues to be incredibly popular.

That passivity is actually one of the reasons I’m interested in theater. It’s a live medium that involves interaction between the audience and performers; the event doesn’t actually happen unless you have a live actors in front of a live audience and the two are feeding each other. If that’s happening, there’s the creation of an event in everyone’s imagination that’s greater than anything that could have happened individually.

I don’t want to say one medium is better than another. I love movies; I love TV, actually. But they are very different kinds of experience, in terms of your involvement while you’re watching them. Movies and TV are both more passive in the sense that you are not connecting to anything alive. It’s already happened.
Even the reality shows where you’re supposed to be seeing reality are already scripted and frozen. The audience is made passive by those kinds of experiences, in the same odd way I think the Internet is making people more passive.

But then, that would be another play.

I think theater-going is a passive activity as well. In the conventional experience you sit in a darkened room, look onto a lighted stage. The performance stays up there while the audience stays out here, seated, not moving, for the next two hours or so.
Yes, you’re in the dark and your attention may be directed to various parts of the stage. But you can choose to look anywhere else. The director may want you to be looking stage left, but if you’re not completely engaged by what’s going on, you can look elsewhere, at your watch or whatever.

In the movies or TV, because every single camera angle is determined, you can only see what they want you to see. And then that gets into the whole idea of intentionality. What is the intention—what do they want us to see? What’s best about human beings? Or what’s worst about human beings?

When I spoke with choreographer Martha Clarke about her dance theater production of The Garden of Earthly Delights we talked about a "negative sense of imagination or possibility": the human capacity to invent devices that only cause injury. In her work, what look like early humans investigate at first the pretty benign possibilities of their bodies on stage—this is a hand, these are fingers; these are the things we can do with them. But as it (and the Hieronymus Bosch painting it’s based on) continues, the imagination becomes increasingly negative; their techniques and tools are used more to hurt and injure each other.
Is television turning into a device like those? Or has it already become one?

I think television—and the entertainment industry in general—has been moving toward a certain desensitization of the audience so they can watch things like people hurting themselves badly on Jackass and think it’s funny, or watch the emotional or psychological peril of people in distress or discomfort and find that entertaining also.

The examples from Martha Clarke were interesting to me, because that’s definitely what’s happened to horror movies. I teach a horror movie class, and Psycho is a huge turning point in the history of horror movies, as far as I’m concerned—in terms of showing us things we didn’t think we wanted to see before.

In 1960, when they made it, they used chocolate syrup for blood. They did it black and white instead of color because they thought blood would be too disturbing.

It’s a long road from there to the Saw movies, which are just about inventing instruments of torture with which to mangle and dismember these basically faceless characters who you have nothing invested in. So there’s really no suspense.

The suspense is who will get it next; and what grisly way will we be able to destroy the human body.

Who gets it and how they’ll get it. A question of the tech and the distribution, that’s all.
Exactly. It’s like, what the camera can show, it will show now.
As if there were no choice.

Hm. Shades of that Anne Sexton poem about suicides: “Like carpenters, they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.”
We’re at one far end of that right now. The genre’s called torture porn, in films like Hostel and Saw. There’s very little story; there are no characters. It’s just about torturing people.
These things are oddly puritanical, in a reverse—or maybe it’s 360 degrees—sort of way.

They’re so disrespectful of the human body. They have such an animus toward it. In a way, it goes back to the fear of the human body that animated the early Protestant religions.

I do want to zero in on one thing, here. It’s one thing to say that our mediated forms of experience, the tech itself—the feed coming through television, the internet—tends to reinforce passivity.
But what really gets my attention in several places in
Now You See Me is when it appears that the medium is actually selecting toward chaos, toward disaster…and perhaps a certain sense of sadism in the audience as well.
In one scene a television producer named Ravenel asks his assistant Bixby, “Were you watching, when New Orleans was going under?” After he says yes, Ravenel asks, “And did you want the levees to hold?” Bixby doesn’t answer the question. Presumably it’s more interesting video—“better television”—if the levees don’t hold. Is this medium predisposing us to root for destruction and disaster? Is it predisposing us toward, for lack of a better term, evil?

[Watching levees collapse] is going to be more interesting to watch, on a completely abstract level, than if the levees hold. The thought is, “Oh, I’ve never seen New Orleans flood. What would it look like?” You don’t think, “Oh, well, actually if it did, people would die; homes would be destroyed; lives would be destroyed.”

I understand the Internet has footage from the tsunami this week in Japan. I have not seen it. I have no idea what it would look like, and a part of me doesn’t really want to go looking.
Or, for that matter, when Daniel Pearl was executed, there supposedly was footage of his beheading online. And I just thought, “I cannot have that in my brain. I just don’t think I can look at that.”

And yet there are organizations and businesses out there devoted to making that available.
Yeah. And the fact that I even thought about it, and had to make a decision not to see it, says something: "I had the opportunity to watch a man being beheaded."

Ravenel and Bixby are clearly investing in the possibility of disaster when they’re deciding if Claire’s in or out of their new series. They think, if we bring this person in, maybe she'll completely self-destruct. And that would be a good thing—for the ratings, at least.
A milder example of that is American Idol, where they obviously bring in lousy contestants so we can see them self-destruct, before we get down to the group that’s going to be the anointed ones.
A large part of the “enjoyment” of watching that show is seeing people who are terrible, who are then mocked and destroyed for our entertainment.

Maybe it’s not such a small example, for there’s this sense of…I mean, evil probably is the ultimate result, but the intermediate result is an increasing desensitivity, or erosion of compassion that we should be feeling when we see people in situations in extremis.

Compassion fatigue. People have been writing about this forever: this idea that, going back to the Vietnam War for example, you’d see horrific footage from war, and then an ad for Campbell’s Soup…

…on the nightly news with Cronkite…

…and they both receive the same amount of airtime, they both receive the same lack of commentary.
In what way are we supposed to order the realities and the importances of those things, when one’s juxtaposed against another against another? Where do we get the filter that says, this is important and that is not; this is moral and that is not?

I feel that process has accelerated in my lifetime; this deluge of information that everybody keeps writing about. It feels like something is changing in human consciousness to me. And I think the worst part of it would be this erosion of empathy or compassion.

I understand we’re speaking of extreme cases, and that there are all kinds of counter-movements to this. But for the larger culture at this particular moment, it seems, in so many different ways, we are being asked to laugh at rather than sympathize with.

What was slapstick is now something…slightly different.
The distinction that used to be made was “Are you laughing at, or laughing with?” I think so much of current comedy is laughing at. The great comedians like George Carlin made us feel like we’re the person he’s talking about. The newer comedians are saying, “You’re the people who are hip enough to understand why the people I’m talking about are ridiculous.”

The acceleration and saturation of the media, the sense we’re being force-fed this ceaseless stream of info, data, pictures—my sense is you’re saying that this poses a fundamental, perhaps insuperable, challenge to any consideration of just what is appropriate discourse for a community, a common culture, a sensus communis.
People talk about the global village, and how the Internet is bringing us closer. And there are many ways in which those technological advancements are wonderful and amazing. But I think the danger is, they are changing the ways in which we think and concentrate and read and do all kinds of other things. And people are not completely paying attention that the world is transforming around them.

I thought The Social Network was actually a fascinating movie. What was most chilling about it was how random it was; how the development of Facebook began without anybody having any sense of purpose about what this could be, and how it developed around the creators of it and beyond them in ways they couldn’t possibly have foreseen and had no control over.

Then suddenly, there it was. A fact of life. And we now have a generation of young people who don’t know a world without Facebook. And that’s fine, except that now a lot of people need to step back and say, “What does this mean? What is the new technology doing to us as human beings? Is it great to be this connected all the time? Does one really have to be in constant communication with somebody? Can you go for two hours without it?

What is possibly being bankrupted if one must stay in constant contact?
The whole idea of having time for contemplation, to be in solitude with oneself. We’re not getting much of it anymore. It seems that people are actually afraid of it, or nervous about it in some way. It’s part of many religious traditions, and I think it’s actually a necessary condition for the human soul. To the extent that we keep losing more and more of our privacy, we have less and less of that interior time.

And space, for that matter. The borders of the self are not only being renegotiated in such a world; they can potentially be flattened by its demands. The camera—and the viewers behind it—want in.
We see people at their worst, their rawest, but we don’t see what’s inside them; what makes them want to live their lives. I think it’s paradoxical. We lose our privacy, but we don’t gain intimacy. It’s exposure, instead of intimacy.

There’s kind of a public relations maneuver with these technologies to make it seem like what we lose in privacy we gain in community. But I think interconnectedness in the digital world is very different from actual connectedness, from real human relationship. We can feel we are not alone and that we are deeply connected—when we actually aren’t seeing any human beings in the course of a given day.

Which raises another paradoxical question: How can a people lose so much privacy, and yet be so profoundly—and perhaps increasingly—alone?
That’s one of the things that has haunted me, personally, the most about this whole movement toward being so-called “interconnected.” I myself have experienced—and I think a lot of other people have experienced—this increasing sense of being isolated, despite one’s best efforts to make connections in the real world.

I think, for example, that people feel like, “Well, I sent you an email, so we’re connected.”
[Laughs]
I mean, that’s one step beyond calling a person and hoping you get their answering machine because you don’t actually want to talk to them. The whole phenomenon of texting is designed that way; because if you have the time to text, you certainly have the time to actually make the phone call.

I find texting totally bizarre. [Laughs] The person is more or less saying, “No, I don’t want to talk with you right now—but I want to communicate something to you.” Just so close, but not too close—
—that’s exactly it: “I want you to know something.” (melodramatic pause) “But I don’t want to discuss it with you at all.” (laughs)

It’s monologue, not dialogue. One-directional communication, not bi-directional.

[SPOILER ALERT: To probe further into Bell’s work, I chose to discuss a couple of fairly significant plot points with the playwright. I’ve placed those parts of our conversation below, at the end of the interview. Fair warning: Those who would prefer to know less, and not more, going into the show might wish to defer reading the rest of this article until after they’ve seen the performance.]

Rachel Klem and Tony Perucci in NOW YOU SEE ME. Click image to enlarge.
  • D.L. Anderson
  • Rachel Klem and Tony Perucci in NOW YOU SEE ME. Click image to enlarge.

Claire’s an interesting character. The choices she makes keep interesting me. She engages in this reality show; she hands over her privacy—boy, does she ever hand over her privacy. She is taking this drug they’re providing on the show. It seems to be working. But she concludes at one point that survival would actually be the worst thing that could happen to her. In a sense, she faces a similar dilemma that the original, Vedic adherents to the belief in reincarnation did: It was the worst outcome, because it meant you weren’t finished. It wasn’t “rebirth” to them, but “redeath” instead. Claire reaches this existential dilemma. Live, and lose; die, and lose. In a situation like that, the dilemma is how does one claim, reclaim or find any dignity, any personal… triumph.
One thing she discovers in the course of the play is that she’s always been living by narratives that other people have given her. Either the culture, metaphorically, or here, with the TV show, it’s a literal story. I think if there’s any positive quality to the play at all, at the end she has realized that she has to reject the stories that were given to her and figure out what her own story is.

Which is going to be painful and scary, and she doesn’t know how to do it. Which is why at the end she’s just running. She doesn’t have a plan; she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. She just knows she has to get out of this trap she walked into voluntarily.

But it’s been made clear to her how much she hasn’t been living an authentic life, a life where she can figure out exactly what she wants and goes for it.

There’s an exchange late where a character asks, “Can you live without hope? Is it possible?” And Ravenel says, “No, I still want things.” You picked up on a Buddhist element, which I’ve been reading a lot about lately, so it probably is lurking in the play somewhere: The idea that human suffering is based on connection to things—to things—and our inability to dispossess ourselves.

It is a precept of Buddhism: Suffering comes out of want. I want, therefore I suffer.
Claire thinks she’s renouncing that early on in the play, when she says she wants to live without hope.
But that’s actually the wrong thing I think, too. Because that involves living in a state of…absence or negativity. It’s different from genuine detachment.

She has to learn how to define herself. She wrestles with it during the course of the play.

The aspiration to live without hope: this would likely be an ideal or the ideal for several existential thinkers from the early-to-mid 20th century. True, they would likely be very careful to limit the hope they assert they are living without. But with that being said, it’s not a bogus ambition. The more careful one is in defining the hope one lives without, the more useful that absence probably is.
That’s what she has to figure out. You can’t just say, “I don’t want to live without hope, because hope is too painful.” But it is too painful, though, if you’re hoping for the wrong things.

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