In her play Girl in the Machine, Scottish writer Stef Smith tells a story designed to challenge our immersion into the digital realm in our daily lives.
“I want the audience to think about their relationship with their digital devices – both in a positive and negative way, about how our devices can be both tools and weapons,” says Smith.
Set in a dystopian near future, Girl in the Machine revolves around a professionally high-flying couple, Polly and Owen (played by Chantelle Jamieson and Brandon McClelland).
Polly finds it hard to relax after work, so Owen buys her a ‘Black Box’, a hot new gadget promising relaxing virtual reality experiences.
It proves addictive and Polly quickly becomes dependent on the device, so much so that she doesn’t hear rumblings of discontent in the wider world as people begin to protest against the technologies that strangle their time, their imaginations and their dreams.
“Girl in the Machine explores the importance of human connection and how loneliness can come in many forms,” says Smith. “I also want people to examine their own relationship with loneliness and a need for connection.”
The play also addresses issues of gender embedded in technology. Girl in the Machine poses questions about the way women experience the world they live in but have little input in creating.
“Technology and digital realm has historically been one occupied by men and, of course, there have been terrible misuses of both to subjugate and objectify women,” says Smith. “But I also believe the digital realm can be a platform for positive political movements. You only have to look at the #MeToo movement.”
Claudia Barrie, the production’s director, likens the play to an episode of the Black Mirror series.
“It’s set a few years in the future but it could be happening today – a very sick version of today,” she says.
“There will be content warnings but it’s important for theatre to not shy from being confronting. But with any play, the audience will only care or feel confronted by a protagonist going through something traumatic if they’ve got to know the people on stage and can identify with them. So part of my job is establishing the characters as people as quickly as possible.”
Ultimately, creating a sense of discomfort or disturbance in an audience is a balancing act, Barrie says.
“I think you have to look at what’s on the page and if you want to take things that little bit further, you have to ask yourself, how much of that is necessary? But I think audiences can handle a lot more than we imagine as long as you address the issues honestly and unapologetically.”
Girl in the Machine plays the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 20-29