Tim Carlson introduces Foreign Radical

Playwright Tim Carlson discusses cyber surveillance, personal freedom, and pushing audiences to confront the shocking realities of the digital age

Feature by Cat Acheson | 31 Jul 2017

Tim Carlson, Canadian writer and developer of Theatre Conspiracy’s much-anticipated play Foreign Radical, has been fixated with cyber-surveillance, privacy and the violation of civil liberties for several years. But it was only after Edward Snowden’s revelations of global surveillance programmes in 2013 that he began to understand the depth and magnitude of these issues in our digitally-saturated world. Gradually, a daring and challenging new theatrical work emerged.

“Initially what I was interested in was cyber warfare,” Carlson explains, when asked what made him want to explore these themes in the interactive, game show-style piece. “That was [in the] six months leading up to the Snowden revelations, and of course that made everything a little bit deeper and more interesting when it comes to issues of security, personal freedom and racial profiling. And so the question became: ‘How do we theatricalise those concerns?’ We wanted to look at – sort of, physicalise, say – what we do on social media. We debate, we argue, we rant, we share, we collaborate, and so those kinds of things happen in different scenes between audience members.”

Questions of how our digital information is used and by whom, and equally how we use and interpret digital information, are becoming ever more pertinent – and frightening. Central to Foreign Radical’s premise is the notion that the use and misuse of cyberspace, both by governments and individuals, causes real harm. More to the point, some groups of people are especially at risk, as structural and personal prejudice collide with the rapid erosion of privacy in the digital age. The play centres on the character Hassam, a young Persian man who is profiled at the border as he tries to enter the country. How the narrative unfolds depends on the audience, who, guided by the uncanny choice of a game show host character, are presented with fragments of information, and must debate what it means and the kind of response that is appropriate or necessary.

It’s certainly an unusual scenario for a theatrical audience to be placed in, but Carlson felt it was necessary to adopt this fully interactive, immersive approach. “I think what’s important in the dramatic scenario is, you’re standing two to three feet away from this guy in some pretty heavy circumstances, and that’s very different from seeing something on video,” he says. “There’s a fair amount of freedom to voice your opinion, to act in a certain way or to back off and not take part, and all of that makes the social dynamic more interesting.” While many audience members choose to play the game as themselves, some may choose to roleplay, he adds. This allows Foreign Radical to provide a space of moral limbo, in which the audience have the option of exploring perspectives that they would never usually hold, or even engage with. “Sometimes people will refuse to take part [in a certain scene], because they find that they’re playing the aggressor,” says Carlson. “They don’t want to do that. On the other hand, [you find] some people that you would not expect to take part, for instance one time it was a human rights lawyer getting into it, and playing the role that she would ordinarily resist.”

The improvised nature of each performance makes it impossible to predict what the outcome will be, or how the audience will behave. But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that the experience will be challenging, uncomfortable, and at times, surprisingly playful and fun-filled. This latter element is intriguing: how can humour emerge out of such heavy and disturbing subject matter? But Carlson points out that the stance adopted by state governments towards individual rights and freedoms is nothing if not absurd, and there comes a point where nervous laughter is the only possible response. He is particularly concerned with the US Watch List, a database of individual names maintained by the federal-run Terrorist Screening Centre. There are currently over 700,000 names on the list, and yet the criteria for being placed on it is utterly nonsensical, as Carlson discovered during his research. The official guidance, he says, states that a person may be placed on the list “if they are in any way associated with a terrorist organisation, even if that organisation has not been designated as a terrorist organisation by the U.S government. They can be treated as representatives of the organisation, even if they have neither membership in, nor association with, the organisation.” The implications of this ridiculous policy for people likely to be targeted by the government, particularly Muslims and people of colour, are nothing short of terrifying.

Carlson hopes that Foreign Radical will help audiences become more aware of how the state abuses our personal information through sinister methods like the US Watch List. And if the play incites people to advocate for more civil liberties, so much the better. But he’s conscious of not wanting to hammer home any specific political message. In fact, the play is as much concerned with interrogating our individual behaviours as it is with its broader political focus. He raises an interesting point about how our personal attitudes towards digital information and privacy reverberate within a much bigger, structural picture? “We would demand some better basic human rights be honoured by the government, by law. But you know, we have all of this personal technology. Do we actually extend those rights to a lover when we’re jealous, do we extend those rights to co-workers who we might be competing with? How personally do we guard those rights in our day-to-day lives?” The line between personal and political, then, is especially blurred in the age of cyberspace.

Carlson elaborates on the play's use of three different languages: English, Arabic, and Farsi. “I’ve always thought it’s a really interesting dynamic to see how we can play with multi-lingual elements, as a way to animate new thought processes about what we understand and don’t understand.” This will undoubtedly add another dimension to an already multi-dimensional play about the slippery nature of information and access to it. Furthermore, Carlson points out that using languages which many audience members won’t understand has the interesting effect of subverting power dynamics that we’ve unconsciously come to take for granted. “People who are fluent in Farsi and Arabic are the most likely to be profiled at this point in history. So it kind of flips the usual dynamic. People who are fluent in those languages actually have a strategic advantage in the game. They can look at certain information, or hear it, and choose whether or not to share it with collaborators or keep it to themselves, and obviously that will influence the debate.”

It’s difficult to fully get to grips with the nuanced ideas and unconventional methods at work in Foreign Radical before experiencing it first-hand. But there can be no doubt that this will be a performance like no other at the Fringe this year. Uncomfortable though it may be, Tim Carlson’s play is surely essential viewing for all of us who care about safeguarding our digital and personal freedoms at a time in history when these are more under attack than ever.

Foreign Radical, CanadaHub @ King's Hall in association with Summerhall, 2-27 Aug (not 8, 15 or 12 Aug), 1pm