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Neal Bell discusses Now You See Me, his new play about privacy and modern media


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Late-stage lung cancer is certainly no joke. But Claire, the central character in Neal Bell's new play, Now You See Me, has an unexpected ally, of sorts.

It's her television, even though—contrary to the chorus of the Talking Heads song "Television Man"—they are not good friends. Bell's dark comedy, which receives its world premiere Thursday at Manbites Dog Theater, is a sharp-eyed critique of a medium that has, in its own way, proven just as metastatic in our culture as the carcinomas in Claire's body.

Now You See Me asks to what lengths a television network will go in order to ensure 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 on the dotted line?

We spoke for an hour by phone last weekend. A longer version of the interview is on Artery, the Indy's arts blog.

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, 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 has said, "No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up."

I think cynicism is exactly the right word. It goes beyond the "stranger than fiction" thing. 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. 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."

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 a social life there. But it's odd that they're not having a social life with these people in the classroom. [...]

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 we need to step back and say, "OK, 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. 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 viewers—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.


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