Henry Jenkins would love Parasocial Parallax.
For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Jenkins, a professor of media studies at the University of California, developed a theory of convergence culture. This theory describes a world of transmedia storytelling and consumer culture, where audiences have ceased to simply be passive observers, and instead, are now active participants. This is Parasocial Parallax to a tee.
This wonderful play – or should I say, plays – not only invites the audience to be part of the story, but the story that we enter into also raises so many questions about the ‘real world’ consequences of our sycophantic, societal obsession with ourselves and social media. I loved it.
Set sometime in a post-2026 world, the story begins with a prologue of Mackenzie Smith (Eliza Allen) streaming live to her legions of followers: announcing that that evening, she and her husband Jordan (Alec Hastie) will be attending the Streamy Awards, where they – the ‘Smith’ family – will be receiving the award for the best streaming show of the year. Smith being a somewhat overt but nonetheless wonderful allusion to the ability of the ordinary person to become extraordinary in the world of social media.
In an example of organic convergence that would make Jenkins’ toes curl, not only does the play begin with Eliza Allen performing the role of Mackenzie live on the impromptu stage of the Cave Inn in Woolloongabba, Mackenzie, the character, is actually live on Instagram in the so-called real world. 10-years ago, an audience of theatre-goers staring at their phones (as they were on the night) would likely have been considered either obtuse or a gimmick. But there was something uncomfortably familiar about a room of people staring into their phones, unsure if they were meant to be physically present, or in a simulacrum of the very events going on around them. Think Shakespeare meets Black Mirror.
Jordan’s character is quickly set up as a doting husband and father, and Mackenzie’s voice of reason; a character arc that ends (in the two incarnations I saw) both tragically and comedically. And there are four more possibilities. The audience, both present and online, is brought into the play through Mackenzie’s neurolink: a device implanted into her brain that causes her great discomfort when she is confronted with indecision. At these moments, her followers, us, must vote on whether she follows her head or her heart, and Mackenzie must abide unconditionally by whatever the decision; another overt yet wonderful reference to the guiding life-force that social media has become for so many of us.
At this point, enter Will (Wayne Bassett), Mackenzie’s father. First addressing the audience from the green room of the Streamy Awards, in a Shakespearian style dramatic monologue, we quickly learn that Will is a media oligarch, doting father, and widower to Mackenzie’s deceased mother, Kimberly. It’s obvious that he feels his daughter has married well below her class – and depending on which play you see – this may be true. But it may just as easily turn out that Jordan might just be husband and father of the year. This is entirely up to you and me.
As the play goes on, much in the same way as a Tell-Tale game, every time Mackenzie’s neurolink triggers, Jordan breaks the fourth wall in a passionate plea to ease his wife’s suffering and invites the audience to vote: head or heart. Jordan is clearly torn between the love he has for Mackenzie and the impacts on their lives and the lives of their twin children of the Kardashian-esk life they lead. Will, on the other hand, is blinded by the flashy lights of a life fandango. And like the arcs of all three characters, whether his end is a tragedy or comedy, that’s up to us. And to say how the play ends, well that’s literally up to you and me: there are six possibilities.
The performance of all cast members was outstanding, but a particular mention for Eliza Allen is warranted. She was excellent. (Although at times her excellence was in the cringe-worthy moments that we have all becomes so accustomed to in our everyday lives.) The outstanding job Grace Longwill did as the director cannot be left unsaid – alongside Owen Green in design and production; nor the work of the writers Andrew Gillanders, Jamie Stevens, Stanley Benjamin and Rory Hawkins. Witnessing the excitement Grace had on her face watching her own play was so lovely.
Like a Leunig cartoon of a mother pushing a pram or a Celeste Barber satire of the vacuous world of social media influencers, the play both tackles real issues while hilariously taking the piss; raising many questions about the unknown consequences of living a life in a simulacrum – pretty much the same question Henry Jenkins has dedicated his life work to. Above all though (for me a least) the convergence of this transmedia storytelling experience came together so beautifully and left me wondering, what part do I play?