Though the Internet has been integral to everyday life for almost 30 years, people still are navigating its effects on human interaction. Though it isn’t the first format to provide an alternative to in-person interaction — for example, written letters, telephone calls, second-hand relaying of messages — it uniquely combines those methods into an easily manipulated singular technology. The pandemic only has exacerbated the benefits and setbacks of digital relationships.
These contradictions weren’t lost on Leigh Rondon-Davis (they/them) and Nailah Harper-Malveaux (she/her) of Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco. That precarious relationship with online life drew them to “Edit Annie,” Mary Glen Fredrick’s macabre satire of celeb-fan relationships in the digital age opening this month at the Magic Theatre. The eponymous lead is an introvert who works as social media editor for an influencer whom she’s never met. When happenstance brings Annie face-to-face with her famous boss, things take a dark and hilarious turn.
As Rondon-Davis and Harper-Malveaux prepared to co-direct the play’s West Coast debut, they have been acclimating to new roles at Crowded Fire, the latest local theater troupe to adopt a shared leadership model. Under the configuration, Rondon-Davis is in charge of marketing, Harper-Malveaux heading production, and former artistic director Mina Morita in charge of strategy. They join four others on a shared leadership team.
Here are their thoughts on online life and continuing to create theater in a city stuck in a so-called “doom-loop.”
How did you come upon Mary Glen Fredrick’s script, and how did you know you had to put on the stage yourselves?
Leigh Rondon-Davis: The incredible Rami Margron introduced us to the script, which was shared with our literary committee (composed of Crowded Fire resident artists and staff) and, with enthusiastic support from the group and our full staff, we reached out to Mary Glen and finalized the piece for our season! Our organization was drawn to the exploration of hyper-relevant themes/issues like social media, isolation and mental health in addition to the creative challenges the play poses for artists.
Over the years, CFT has not shied away from experimental, boundary-pushing work that speaks directly to Bay Area audiences and the current moment. “Edit Annie” is no exception with its multimedia aspects, breaking of form and resonance for audiences in a time where we are both more connected and disconnected than ever before. Personally, I was drawn to the rigor of the script with all of its technical and seemingly-impossible feats, and, as someone who identifies as neurodivergent and has struggled with mental health challenges since I was a teen, I was moved by the thoughtful, nuanced — and funny! — portrayal of what mental illness can look like.
So, how does one (or, rather, how do two) direct “a queer rom-com”/”psychological thriller” without compromising on those disparate genres?
Nailah Harper-Malveaux: I love genre-bending, gender-bending and playing with seemingly “opposite” or “disparate” aesthetics! For me, inherent to queer expression is a disruption of mutual exclusivity and a rejection of being put in a box. Living life as a queer person, especially a queer femme of color is already a psychological thriller and our romantic lives are hilariously funny too! How can I not merge the two is the real question! I also love the idea that through remixing genre, we are also creating something new!
Social media continues to shape personal and public narratives about body image and relationships with the public. To this day, the most scrutinized images continue to be those of women and femme-presenting folks. Even with a primarily-femme cast and crew, how do you walk the line of portraying that dichotomy honestly, but still have fun with it to call it a “rom-com”?
LRD: The script itself is inherently incisive and playful, and Mary Glen doesn’t shy away from the critique, but they also offer what I feel to be a breadth of viewpoints and commentary from the characters who each have their own complicated relationships to social media and the various platforms they utilize. One of my favorite quotes from the play is a character earnestly admitting, “God, I honestly love capitalism.” “Edit Annie” asks questions around the ethics of social media and our complicity as creators, followers, and even dissidents, while also offering a rich foundation for these sweet, funny, and messy relationships to bloom!
I think our cast and creative team—filled with all people of all backgrounds, but primarily younger women and femme-identified folks—bring an added layer of authenticity and lived experience as social media users to the conversation. Many of us use these platforms on a daily (if not hourly) basis as both content creators and consumers; we have each felt firsthand both the joys and pains while interacting with social media, and we’re eager to explore these experiences with care and intentionality.
You’re working on a show about the power of social media just as celebs (like actor Jonah Hill and pop star Lizzo) find their public images taking major damage in courts of law (via lawsuits) and the court of public opinion. Are there any specific parallels that strike you about working on “Edit Annie” and recent headlines?
LRD: Absolutely! Some of the parallels that come to mind are the higher levels of scrutiny for women of color content creators; how BIPOC influencers must contort themselves, their identities, and self-expression stay relevant and successful—all while earning a fraction of what their white counterparts are making; the complicated relationship between accountability and cancel culture. Not to mention the privacy and safety concerns for celebrities or public figures; and the tricky power dynamics between influencer and follower (employer and employee, fame and anonymity, etc.)—parasocial relationships have existed even before our digital age but have become more relevant as we have more access to our favorite celebrities than ever before.
A story in which technology plays such an intricate role runs the risk of becoming dated. Is the script “of-the-moment” in its use of technology or telling a timeless concept through a modern lens?
NHM: This story certainly is a reflection of the now. Mary Glen wrote it in the pandemic and the imprint of that collective trauma (that is still reverberating) is all over this play. We experienced isolation on a massive scale, while also being hyper-connected to social media in a way that was all-consuming. For many, the digital world kind of supplanted our immediate day- to-day reality. There was a long stretch of quarantine where the days ran together, so questioning reality feels strangely familiar.
I’m of the mindset that if a story is honest and specific enough, it doesn’t become dated, it becomes historic and mythic even. I think this story speaks to our present interaction with the social media landscape in a very specific way, but is ultimately a timeless exploration of isolation, mental health and celebrity.
On a similar note, what technological advances do you feel live theater should embrace more? Has Crowded Fire explored the possibility of streaming its productions?
LRD: I would love to see more theaters embrace technologies that allow for greater accessibility for audiences and artists, from sensory support boards to more streamed and virtual content and virtual ways to engage with the work and artists. I think there’s so much possibility and we’re often limited by lack of resources. CFT, for example, has explored streaming, however, it is not possible due to our current capacity. We have offered on-demand viewing of our recent productions though. Stay tuned for the dates for “Edit Annie.”
It’s the company’s first show since 2021’s “The Displaced” and it comes on the heels of recent articles that give a grim outlook for the current state of American theater (which don’t even account for the loss of Bay Area treasures like EXIT Theatre, PianoFight, Bay Area Children’s Theatre and TheatreFirst). What do you think is needed to make diverse and independent theater more sustainable?
NHM: There’s so much! On a macro level, we need the government and foundations to prioritize the arts, specifically funding the arts, and not just large theaters, but small and mid-sized theaters that hire more local artists and are often experimenting with new models of leadership like Crowded Fire.
After the murder of George Floyd, there were very prominent calls for theater to address is its own racist past and lack of diversity, particularly on an executive level. As theater artists of color, have you seen any of those improvements made? How would you say Crowded Fire has fared?
LRD: I have been noticing some shifts, definitely in some places more than others. I think we’re in a period of seeing who’s walking the walk right now, and after the onslaught of solidarity and Equity Diversity Inclusion statements, I’m finally ready to see some real action in the form of cultural changes, equitable compensation, new approaches to leadership and decision-making, and meaningful recentering of communities that have been excluded from these spaces and conversations. Some institutions are finding intentional, reciprocal ways to do that, while others are continuing legacies of tokenization and exploitation of historically marginalized folx, if including them at all.
I don’t think it would be fully appropriate for me to assess how CFT is doing given my positional power within the institution. However, as someone who started as an emerging actor and dramaturg in the org, I can personally say that I have never had an artistic home like Crowded Fire, and I believe that is a direct result of the human-centered and values-led approach to everything we do.
Our new shared leadership model is a perfect representation of that! Active work within our new model to empower leaders of varying skills and experience levels to steward the organization aligned with our individual and organizational values.
There’s also the pandemic, which has delayed Crowded Fire’s production of “Shipping & Handling” for quite some time. In terms of personal health and content produced, when does theater truly feel “safe” for you?
LRD: Personally, I believe that theater won’t be truly “safe” until all of our community members can join us at the theater without risk of illness or death, frankly. I know my comfort level because my personal risk level is relatively low, but I fully acknowledge that is a luxury many still can’t afford. CFT has rigorous COVID protocols and requires masking at all performances because we want to center the most vulnerable, especially as people who are privileged enough to choose.
NHM: I’d also say that safety is relative. Crowded Fire is creating conditions for safety with our COVID policy as well as our culture of equity, accountability and care. I also acknowledge that safety is personal and trust is built over time. We invite new people into our productions and rooms all the time, so our aim is to ensure that we are able to hold the different safety needs for as many people as possible and stay responsive and adaptive.
What’s next for both of you?
LRD: This winter I’ll be directing the long-awaited “Babes in Ho-lland” by Deneen Reynolds-Knott at Shotgun Players in Berkeley. (The show was part of my Theatre Bay Area director’s residency and had to be postponed in early 2022.)
NHM: As the newest member of the shared leadership team, I’m still very much learning the ropes of the organization even though I’ve been working artistically with Crowded Fire for a while. I’ll be diving more deeply into strategy, artistic producing and collaborating with Star Finch, our Mellon Playwright-in-Residence, and Campo Santo on an exciting event coming soon!
“Edit Annie” runs Sept. 21 through Oct. 14 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95, with pay-as-you-can previews. For tickets information, visit http://www.crowdedfire.org/edit-annie/
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist and performing artist. He’s supposedly written for the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, the SF Examiner, and more. Dodgy evidence of this can be found at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.