Dr. Heather Barfield is an associate artistic and development director at the Vortex Theatre in Austin, TX and adjunct professor of performance and theater history/criticism at Austin Community College. She received her PhD in Performance as a Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin. She also holds a M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Her award-winning, critically acclaimed work as a performer, director, producer, and writer often incorporates intermodal forms of storytelling through digital and analog media. Her 2016 production Privacy Settings: A Promethean Tale had Barfield and her cast of devised theater makers exploring the complex topics of whistleblowers, digital privacy, and civil liberties alongside audience-immersive interactions. Her most recent work was as a curator of an Austin production of The Plurality of Privacy Project in five-minute plays, P3M5, a groundbreaking transatlantic theater project sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Washington that focused on the value of privacy. She’s also a board member of the EFF-Austin, the local branch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an independent non-profit civil liberties organization concerned with emerging frontiers where technology meets society.
Tal: I want to start off asking a bit about your work and the topics that you explore, specifically privacy and, since you’ve just had two plays that you produced around privacy, why don’t you tell us a little bit about why you felt that that was a good … That the theater was a good venue to explore privacy in particular, particularly theater.
Heather: Well, theater is my medium. That’s my art. That’s what I studied. That’s what I trained, so there’s that. Theater is also a place where public meets the private in the most visceral way. You have an audience, most of whom are probably strangers to one another, but they’re all witnessing a shared experience together. They are having feelings manifest while they’re seated together, sometimes scary, sometimes sad, sometimes happy, and so I find it really fascinating that one can have emotional experiences with strangers in a space together and how audiences have to simultaneously be negotiating in an internalized way how they’re going to respond to this live, ephemeral, constantly rolling process of evaluating story on stage and how … Do they empathize, do they not empathize, how do they make those decisions on the spot?
We go to a movie theater where there’s a flat screen and you’re sitting in there in the darkness and everybody’s staring at one thing, and yes, indeed, in a lot of proscenium-style theaters, that’s what you have, but what we have here at the Vortex in particular is you’ve got audience on two sides, and we sort of have this strange little kind of … We call it the corner. We have sort of this corner angle in the middle of the space. You will always be seeing other audience members unless we transform the space into a different shape, which we’ve done before, but there is an interactivity of the audience with what’s happening in the space that I find to be really interesting and generative as an artist and as somebody who’s curious about how human beings react, not just to each other but to their circumstances, their environment, their own life stories and histories. It’s kind of a wonderful tapestry in the theater for me.
Again, I’m a geeky academic so I can go on and on and on about this. I’m not the only one that believes in sort of the “wonder of the theater”. Jill Dolan calls it the “utopian performative”.
Tal: I do want to go there a little bit because theater seems to be having a bit of a moment right now.
Heather: Is it though? Is it?
Tal: Well, it seems to be.
Heather: I mean, how old is theater? Is it?
Tal: It’s true, but there seems to be some way that theater is serving right now to explore these complex ideas in a way that other mediums are not quite doing in the same way. Examples would be anything from what’s happened around Hamilton to 1984, that production on Broadway, or the production of Julius Caesar where he was depicted as Donald Trump and all the reactions that came out of that. It seems to have some sort of, perhaps, viscerality to it that is perhaps novel in this digitized age. I wonder what you make of that, whether you agree with that assessment, why or why not?
“…the whole point of Privacy Settings and that production itself was that I wanted people to be made aware of how tenuous our private lives are when we start using computers, cell phones, and start plugging in our bank account information, our birthdate, our lunches, our children. Everything and anything is online…”
Heather: I’m going to first talk from the now. I’m just going to forget about theater history for a minute because there are a lot of arguments that I could present around … People have always participated in the theater. What you’re insinuating is that, “Oh, there’s more participation. There’s more sort of interactivity with the actors.” That’s happened before. Just because we’re using a new tool to implement that sort of interactivity, it’s interesting but at the heartbeat of it all, it’s still to connect to each other as human beings. It’s still to find shared stories and shared conversations. It’s the need that I feel, that urge to make meaning of our lives. Theater is a venue where we make meaning of our lives, in my opinion.
Now, when we start to incorporate-
Tal: I’m sorry. More so than, say, cinema? More so than other media?
Heather: I don’t like that argument. I’m saying I’m a theater practitioner. I’m not going to be like, “Our flag is bigger than your flag as artists” because I think that that’s-
Tal: It’s just a different flag.
Heather: I think that it’s a prism. There’s all sorts of perspectives. There’s a rainbow of color of art, and that’s my medium and I’m passionate about my medium and I’m passionate about my ability to translate how I see the world and how the artists I work with see the world and how we can generate both conflict on the stage to help us problem-solve some of the problems that we’re facing right now through storytelling. It’s all about storytelling in the end.
Now some people argue, again, that that’s not the case either. Again, we are at … I think if we’re going to go to this, “We’re at an interesting time for the theater”, it would be in the sense that people are able to play and tinker and hack theater. That’s what I called Privacy Settings. I said that I was hacking theater in a way, and I was working with these other artists in the sense that I am taking these traditional forms, so you have audience seated, quiet, paying … By the way, that is only more of a 20th-century thing that we’re quiet and seated there with our little, proper selves in the seat … Allowing audience members to use their cell phones in the middle of a performance and getting phone calls, encouraging them to receive a phone call in the middle of a performance.
Tal: Which are things that you’ve done in Privacy Settings.
Heather: In Privacy Settings, and then they receive the call and it’s one of my actors reciting to them the Fourth Amendment, and they basically demand this person in the audience, listening on their phone, stand up in front of everybody in the audience and repeat the Fourth Amendment out loud, and then that’s done in succession. There’s repeated moments of that so that it builds that tension. What’s happening of course is you’re breaking the fourth wall, fine, but what I’m trying to do, when we talk about viscerality, the whole point of Privacy Settings and that production itself was that I wanted people to be made aware of how tenuous our private lives are when we start using computers, cell phones, and start plugging in our bank account information, our birthdate, our lunches, our children. Everything and anything is online.
Now at first, in my own research and my own fascination with this, it was kind of about Snowden, right? Let me back up.
Tal: To back up-
Heather: The whole thing is that the story … I had already been in the digital sort of curiosities. I was afraid of Facebook phenomena, the Friendster. What was the other one? Myspace. I was like, “Why are people talking about themselves? I don’t want anybody to know my thing.” I would make up fake names just to pretend, and I found that as a great way to characterize myself and to put on characters, an avatar, right? I was like, “This is Avatar Land!”
Tal: You looked at it in a theatrical way.
“I was like, “Why are people talking about themselves? I don’t want anybody to know my thing.” I would make up fake names just to pretend, and I found that as a great way to characterize myself and to put on characters, an avatar, right? I was like, “This is Avatar Land!””
Heather: Oh my god! Why would I tell anybody anything about myself online in a public forum, even somebody like you, who I don’t even … I know I’m friendly with, but I’m like, “I don’t need Tal to know my favorite song. What’s the point of that?” Then as I started … Then Snowden came out, and then I was like, “Oh, this is it”, and then I started kind of connecting the dots that Snowden is a modern-day Prometheus. Then I thought I was the brilliant person that came up with this idea, but there are very brilliant people in this world and her name is Rebecca Solnit, and Rebecca wrote an article about him being the modern Prometheus. That’s when I knew. I was like, “That’s it. I got to work on this.”
I took about two years translating Prometheus Bound as best I could to a modern kind of twist, and all of it related to the questions of whether or not it is ethical and okay for government sources or any nefarious entities out there to be collecting or information to use either against us or sometimes, in the case, for us. Just depends on how that information’s manipulated.
Then I’m going to say this other thing, and interrupt me anytime. I’ve told you, I’ll go on and on.
Tal: You’re doing great.
Heather: What can happen too is that I realized, when I was working on Privacy Settings, that it’s about data. It’s not really about the NSA. It’s not really about … It is, you know. It is sort of about like, “Oh, no, we have a Fourth Amendment right not to have our emails read”, but these private corporations are already doing that and they’ve been doing it forever now.
Tal: There’s that quote that data is the new oil.
Heather: Yes it is. Yes it is. My argument on all of that was, “How come I’m not making money off of my own data?”
Tal: No, it’s a great-
Heather: As an artist, I’m like, “Cut me and fine, you can take my data. Fine.” See, but we sign all of these clickbait things, right, so terms and agreements which are letters that are tinier than an ant that you’re expected to read, pages and pages and pages of it-
Tal: Which no one does.
Heather: Which nobody does, and so you sign it. Why does nobody do that? I don’t know, because we’re working everyday and because now we’re dependent on that technology to get us through the day. Everything we do now-
Tal: It’s somewhat unreasonable to expect that-
Heather: It’s absolutely unreasonable to expect us to do that. It would take an entire workweek. There was an article posted a couple years ago. It would take a 40-hour workweek for you to read word for word and then comprehend all of that information on those clickbait things. Clickwrap, not clickbait, but clickwrap. That’s what my lawyer friend who helped me on Privacy Settings told me that’s what it’s called, because we had to do that for my show as sort of like a comment on it. We had a sort of ridiculous thing that people had to sign, and some of it was actually true and valid because we were calling people-
“…it’s about data. It’s not really about the NSA…these private corporations are already doing that and they’ve been doing it forever now.”
Tal: Because you were calling people, yes.
Heather: We also kind of interrogated people, and we did our own data processing. In the second half of the show we split the audience up according to data sets that we created, some of it arbitrary, some not so. The audience was always under surveillance the whole time.
Back to this viscerality of theater.
Tal: Yes, that was exactly where I was going to go. Yes.
Heather: That was what my intention was, was that I was hoping by forcing them to be hyper-aware of, “This is the theater, yes, but you’re under watch. You’re under surveillance. You’re being monitored and your actions make a difference in how you come out of this situation.”
Tal: My point being that I don’t know of any other medium that can accomplish those things in such an efficient and beautiful manner.
Heather: In a way … I, again, am a theater maker and that’s what I think, but there are all kinds of people doing strange things with VR and augmented reality. I’m a champion for live performance. That can also be live performance art or some kind of interactivity, breath to breath, smell to smell, bodies in space and time. Again, that’s just me.
Tal: That’s exactly-
Heather: I know theater makers that kind of would argue against the live-ness of theater and sort of the canonization of live-ness, that it becomes the be-all of everything.
Tal: I think what you’re touching on is what I wanted to explore a little bit more, which is the fact that theater offers the audience precisely all the things that the digital cannot provide in the sense that the digital is very bad at providing things like smell or taste or touch or any of the many senses in between that make up our … We actually have more than five senses. Experts are saying somewhere in the 20’s or something, depending on who you ask, but there are all these combinations of senses that help us make sense of the world and put it in some kind of order, but when we’re doing something that’s digital or even right now, as our audience is listening to this recording, it’s a compression of the actual thing. The difference between what you would hear live if you were here sitting in this theater with us right now is a different sound packet with different context that would register in your brain differently than just you listening to this interview in your car or wherever right now.
Heather: Maybe. I’m not going to valorize theater because there are plenty of people that hate theater.
Tal: I’m trying to get you to valorize theater.
“…my intention was… forcing them to be hyper-aware of…You’re under surveillance. You’re being monitored and your actions make a difference in how you come out of this situation.””
Heather: I know you are, and I’m resisting, and the reason why I’m resisting is because there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t come to the theater or can’t come to the theater or don’t have the privilege to come to the theater. In some ways, the digital format is the only way people can actually participate. In fact, there’s a couple of websites out there. HowlRound has been doing live streaming of theater. There’s places in rural communities that may just love Jesus Christ Superstar, but they don’t have a quality theater in order to experience it. The best thing they got is perhaps a live streaming of this musical or the soundtrack to it or something like that.
By the way, I’m not just a theater person. I’m a performance studies scholar, which means that everything around me becomes performative and everything around me becomes some kind of staging of something else.
Heather: I see the world always as bodies in a particular space and time costumed for what is appropriate or, sometimes inappropriate, which is fascinating as well. What happens when somebody is dressed for summer in the winter? It becomes a really interesting conversation. One of the things that I think happens is that there’s … Again, I haven’t written extensively on this. There’s lots of scholars who have, but there’s this sense that theater makers are like, “Theater is the only place where you can feel what it means to be human or what it means to be face to face” and stuff, and I get it, and yeah, I kind of agree. I also think that, let’s ask ourselves, “Is it possible to have it in other means?”
If anything, because I’m not necessarily interested in only making theater. Yeah, that’s my lifeblood. That’s how I make my … How I survive. I get funding through arts. There’s a whole capitalist thing that we can go on about theater and money and business, et cetera. I’ll set that there for just a minute, but that we, I think, if we’re going to go back to this digital conversation, I think we’re at a really interesting time where we can explore, “Can we smell in virtual reality?” I know that there’s a couple of interesting things that are happening in the body hacking world around augmented vision in your eyeballs and can you put stuff in your nose to smell things depending on what … There’s all kinds of neat things. We don’t know what the human body is going to be like in the next hundred years. That’s what a lot of futurists are talking about right now.
“We don’t know what the human body is going to be like in the next hundred years. That’s what a lot of futurists are talking about right now.”
What does that do for the actor? If my body is the instrument, what if everybody’s body could become the instrument and then they become hyper-aware of their own performative nature and making the stories as they happen in their daily lives? You’ve got immersive theaters taking people out of the seats, digital theater interacting with live tweets on stage, cell phones, drones, all these things that people are using to kind of incorporate digital and tech in their shows. In my mind, all of it leads to one basic desire, and that is to communicate and people just wanting to find a means to see … Find some way to make what’s in my head and my heart understood by you by any means possible. Now, that’s just step one. Step two is comprehension, and you could go further and you would say compassion and empathy. I could tell my story over and over and over again, but if it doesn’t resonate with you or you don’t feel that you connect with it in some way, okay. Well then, does that mean I’m failing? Does that mean that it’s a failure that I don’t connect with you? As an artist, I have all kinds of stories that I want to tell that are actually really vulnerable stories about my life and about some of the things that I’ve experienced as a means for me to heal. For me it’s kind of a healing thing.
Heather: Even Privacy Settings was sort of a healing thing. It was a way for me to make sense of what I think is absolutely ethically, morally, constitutionally vile.
Tal: Something that really struck me about the production when I saw it was the fact that here you are, discussing a topic that clearly is frightening and fear-inducing with the technology that seems to be so associated with it, and yet so much of the interesting parts of the … So much of what made it interesting was that you use that very technology to tell the story.
Heather: That is true. Again, it’s my way of trying to understand these things because some people out there think that all this stuff is great. You talk to anybody in the InfoSec, security industry, they’ll be all about it, about using this stuff and about using data to exploit people and their vulnerabilities or their habits or their choices for profit.
Tal: Well, and there’s also people who are technological solutionists, who will say, “Well, okay, maybe it sucks now but we’ll find another tech fix for it and that’ll solve that.”
Heather: I think that part of my issue really is that this is not in the hands of enough people and enough diverse people.
Tal: Too concentrated.
Heather: It’s not democratized. I don’t even know if I’m a huge fan of democracy. I’m still trying to figure out what democracy is for me these days, but I think that there aren’t enough people of color in tech, women in tech. There is not enough diversity of voices, visions, and ideas and ideals to make this technology a kind of humanizing force. I don’t know. Maybe that’s not the right phrasing, but maybe they don’t need to be. I don’t know. I think that we’re at a really confusing time. What I do know is that people don’t calm down enough and that people may be communicating in their devices back and forth, but they’re not reciprocating with contemplation about what they’re reading … People are reacting. They’re reacting to what they’re reading online or in a tweet or something instead of taking a moment to be like, “Is this really what I mean to say? Is this really how to go about getting my message across through this tool?” Like any tool, like a knife, a knife can be used to slice delicious sushi or it can stab you in the heart, to go to extremes.
“…some people out there think that all this stuff is great. You talk to anybody in the InfoSec, security industry, they’ll be all about it, about using this stuff and about using data to exploit people and their vulnerabilities or their habits or their choices for profit.”
Using the tech as tools, which is what I was trying to do for the benefit of both engaging audience members in a very literally hands-on way, because of their cell phones in their hands and it’s their device, it’s their little computer that they’re interacting with, that device then becomes a tool for use in the theater, in the particular production. I basically hijacked and hacked their phones for theater, for the use in my show. Again, I’m very humble. I don’t think I’m all that brilliant in what I’m doing. I think that with more funding and more people and more diverse voices, we can go much further in that kind of exploration and using these tools, but will they really be effective in the end? Again, let’s go back to this. What is the main question you have? What is the main problem … I want to say “problem” sort of like a theoretical thought experiment, problem that you’re sort of pursuing in these interviews and in these conversations. What is it that’s invigorating you?
Tal: Are you turning it back on me now?
Heather: I’m doing that just so that I can figure out how to explore this idea of using tech as a tool rather than …
Tal: We are exploring exactly that complexity. I’m enjoying hearing you talk about the complexity because I think part of our problem is how oversimplified this becomes and how, when the complexity does arise, people have a tendency to tune out and think, “Oh, it’s just hopeless. There’s nothing I can do.” If I can step out of my kind of journalistic role here for a moment and say the intent behind this is to show that there is still hope, and the hope comes from dealing with it and going deep into it rather than simply hoping someone else is going to come around and fix it for you or that you’ll be dead before it’s a problem or any of these other attitudes that kind of prevail right now.
What I’m trying to do is say, yes, things are dark right now. It’s kind of the shadow side of technology, but it’s part of the package and every technology has had that. The key to mastering any technology is in acknowledging that dark side. Otherwise it just sort of ends up taking over. My intent is to explore that, that complexity. You’re bringing up kind of an interesting point about diversity. I kind of agree with your intuition on that with regards to the diversity question. There seems to be, just as much as there’s a technological solution-ism, there seems to be a sort of diversity solution-ism in the sense that diversity plus anything makes everything better. To a degree, yes, sure, but I feel like when that becomes a formula statement, both sides of the statement become superficial and the meaning of them gets kind of degraded. There seems to be this sort of attitude where, “Well, if we just throw different faces on there that we’re not used to, then that makes it okay”, but that’s not the point because, as we’ve seen in countless situations in recent events, that doesn’t really solve the problem.
Heather: Well, here’s the thing. Capitalism will co-opt anything it possibly can. It is a voracious, hungry beast and it will find its way anywhere. This is what I think we all we really need to be paying attention to, is tech and capital, art capital. It’s not that I’m a full-out Marxist, but I’ve read my own … Okay, fine, an okay amount. Again, there’s experts in every field, but what I’m seeing more and more is that we have got to find means to exchange services and goods beyond the dollar. This is what I think is happening with the future and with theater in particular. When people are doing more immersive events or they’re doing sliding scales or various ways for people to afford to see the theater or different funding structures, different kinds of collaborative theater making … People are needing to come up with solutions now because I think that capitalism may indeed be breathing its last final breaths. Of course then I’ll hear this twenty years from now, and it’s probably worse than it ever has been. Again, I’m stuck in the system too.
“I think that there aren’t enough people of color in tech, women in tech. There is not enough diversity of voices, visions, and ideas and ideals to make this technology a kind of humanizing force”
Tal: To back up what you’re saying, I spoke earlier in this series to Maggie Duval who has more or less seen the birthings of the Web as we know it. She has a similar view. Her turning point in her mind, in her version of that history, was around ’95, ’96 when the suits came in, the pleated khakis came in.
Heather: By the way, I was writing code, DOS, when I was about 10, 11-
Tal: I didn’t know that.
Heather: Because my family, my dad, my uncles … I had my first computer when I was around that time, and I learned how to just basically … They used to teach BASIC in elementary school. I was on MUDs and MOOs. I did a lot of that kind of stuff in the early ’90s. Anyway, go ahead. Yes. I understand where she’s coming from.
Tal: The way she tells it, these guys came in who did not really understand the technology and they just sought to immediately turn a profit on it.
Heather: There were more women involved too, and once those dudes started coming in … Interesting trends. There used to be more programmers, more women programmers as well.
Tal: We could go down that as well. There’s a whole history of women involved in computer science that is not often spoken of, everyone from Ada Lovelace to … Sorry, I’m blanking. Is there a movie about-
Heather: It was the women who helped the programmers, what is it, at NASA?
Tal: Yeah, yeah. Hidden Figures, that movie?
Heather: Hidden Figures, exactly. That’ll open up a whole other bit, but the point is that for sure, if we’re talking about the “Web” and the Internet, it definitely has shifted where it’s almost entirely a commercial venture. “Community”, again, community a very charged word in and of itself, there used to be communities online and that’s how people would find each other.
Tal: Arguably, there is no way to profit on the Web aside from surveillance.
Heather: With data collection, surveillance.
Tal: Data collection, surveillance, yes.
Heather: Right, or you make people go to sites that will provide the services and goods that they think would be more convenient, aka Amazon and all of that.
Tal: Sure, but it becomes very difficult to run that in a profitable way without collecting their information.
Heather: Without collecting their information. Maybe underneath it all, subconsciously, maybe that’s why I was obsessed with all this privacy stuff, because I remember when I could use my avatar name, log in to a MOO. I don’t know if you know what a MOO is, and a MUD. They are multi-user domains. It’s all text-based, and you program your own little world there and I was in LambdaMOO world because I read … Anyway, long story about how I got there.
Tal: Is this in the early ‘90s?
Heather: No. I started getting to that place in … Oh jeez, probably early 2000’s, but it had been around a lot longer than that. It came out of Xerox … Silicon Valley location. It was sort of this cool, little meeting place where people would create tiny, little tech space communities. There were rules of the land. There were wizards and-
“I also feel like the time that I spent in those worlds are precious to me, and maybe it’s because they’re no longer there as much. It’s part of my exploration in those digital worlds and environments that helped create the person I am today.”
Tal: This is not the same as the boards that …
Heather: No, it’s not a bulletin board.
Tal: It’s not a BBS, okay.
Heather: It’s not The Well. You should look them up, MUDs and MOOs. They’re still around. You can still log in to them as a guest or whatnot. I got into it because I was reading about … When I was at NYU and I was writing about digital cultures then as performative spaces. That was my fascination. You go into this digital world, and you become performative. You take on an avatar name, you dress yourself a certain way. I dressed myself as sort of like this cowgirl, kind of witchy lady in the LambdaMOO world, and I sort of became the person I wish I could be. Men could be women or vice versa, and you could interact with people in that way, but it’s all text-based. There’s no pictures. There’s none of that. You don’t post your breakfast on the site, and you could create your own little home in those worlds. I got into it pretty deep for a while there. I don’t want to reveal too much, but there was some drama that happened.
Tal: No need to dive into it.
Heather: Maybe that’s the show that I want to do. I don’t talk very much to people in general about my experiences in cybercultures mostly because I’m not a programmer. I never worked … Well, no, I did work in tech. I did tech support at Unisys for a while, but I’m a theater maker. I also feel like the time that I spent in those worlds are precious to me, and maybe it’s because they’re no longer there as much. It’s part of my exploration in those digital worlds and environments that helped create the person I am today.
Tal: That’s an important piece that relates to how Snowden talks about privacy, which is he says that you need a space in which to freely explore who you are and who you want to be, that without that you don’t really get to develop a rich inner life, don’t really get to decide what you actually think or how you actually feel about certain things, and that it’s important that that be a private space dedicated to that.
It was called ARPANET. It was intended for the military to communicate information…what happens when people start to use it?
I can relate to that experience as well, personally. My first experience with it was AOL, but I was about 14, 15 at the time. For me that was really important. I was in a pretty oppressive culture, and it gave me a lot of room to explore other aspects of who I am and was ultimately a sort of liberating experience in that regard. Without that experience, my life probably would’ve turned out very differently. I can see it from that, but there does seem to be both that self-exploratory aspect and a sort of performative aspect. Those two things go heavily into how the Web works and, almost arguably, what its function is.
Heather: Right. Now … One of the things that we need to remember about the days … The Internet, of course, was formed … It was called ARPANET. It was intended for the military to communicate information. There’s a piece of that, and maybe I just haven’t come across any readings in my very busy life, but what happens when that militarized sort of mode of communication gets … When people start to use it? People didn’t use it militaristically. Do you know what I mean?
Tal: Yes, yes.
Heather: It is not our impulse to use this kind of tech.
Tal: No. You almost kind of retain some of those biases in a weird way.
“To find that kind of connection, it’s powerful and it validates one’s sense of self that you don’t feel like you’re just the only weirdo that’s into 19th-century vase blowing techniques or something.”
Heather: It’s very interesting to me how I think … Maybe there’s a study somewhere. Now I’m fascinated. You put a new tool in the hands of human beings. What is it that they really initially … What is the first impulse when they use that? Is it about self-discovery? Is it about getting to know the person that you’re too scared to talk to because of whatever bias or, I don’t know, personality trait that makes you just timid? The Internet provides a little bit … This is the very idealistic perspective of it, but it provided a safe space. Again, highly charged phrasing, but it provided a place where in an oppressive environment, or, in the case of me, I was just bored and lonely as an only child and I felt like … I liked computers and I liked tech, and nobody in my immediate family, other than my father who lived far away, appreciated that. I just did what I wanted to do and learned a lot on my own. Being able to choose the kind of research that you want to research, being able to, again, like Snowden was saying, being able to talk to somebody in New Zealand when you’re living in Kansas and you both have similar interests in this obscure thing.
Tal: It’s powerful.
Heather: To find that kind of connection, it’s powerful and it validates one’s sense of self that you don’t feel like you’re just the only weirdo that’s into 19th-century vase blowing techniques or something.
Tal: Absolutely. Then at the end of the day though, it does seem like as good as all those things are, there are underbellies. There are dark sides to it.
Heather: There always is. There’s this great book called The End of Absence that I read in sort of my research for Privacy Settings around when the printed page started happening, when the Gutenberg Bible was being … It was frightening. There was this deep fear that we would lose storytelling, that people would become dumbed down by having all of the words of God written on a page rather than it being sort of translated to them from one sort of knowing, godly person to ...
Tal: That’s from the beginning of the written word, right?
Heather: That’s right.
Tal: There’s that myth of, was it, Thoth? The Egyptian creator-
Heather: Yes, of the word.
Tal: Of the written language presenting his creation to the Pharaoh. I believe this is right. I hope this is right. Basically-
Heather: You can delete it later.
Tal: Basically the idea was that he presents writing to the Pharaoh and he’s like, “Pharaoh, don’t you think this is amazing? Now nobody will have to forget. No one will forget anything.” He’s like, “You fool! They’ll forget everything now.”
Heather: That’s right. They won’t retain it.
Tal: Because they won’t retain anything. They’ll just depend on it.
Heather: Remember Odysseus. These stories were memorized, hours upon hours upon hours-
Heather: Internalized, memorized, and then passed down to generation after generation.
Tal: Poets were like the rock stars of that day.
Heather: Poets were the rock stars.
Tal: They would go, if you wanted to have a fun party, you would invite a poet over. The poet would come over, tell stories.
Heather: That’s right.
Tal: Tell epic tales.
Heather: This is a whole line of sort of theater history, where we go back to sort of this … There’s lots of origin theories of, “Why theater?” Why? Because this seems to be, theater seems to be, all evidence suggests it’s been around since pretty much human beings started living together in community, whether it’s a shaman donning animal masks and becoming the wolf or the whale or …
Tal: I think a big argument, if I’m not mistaken, is that theater derives from that religious practice or perhaps it’s intertwined.
Heather: It is an argument. Again, scholars like to argue.
Tal: I don’t want to argue with a scholar here, obviously.
Heather: I’m not this scholar. I’m saying that there are lots of really neat, interweaving theories about the origins of theater. My thing is, it all is in some capacity. Yes, part of my own research was this fascination with shamans connecting to some other force and being in possession or being in an altered state so that they could translate information from whatever their divine source, whatever their cosmology told them or whatever they believed, how they could then talk to the people or talk to a person and give them advice or problem solving or healing. Again, for me, it touches back into healing. I always go back to this healing aspect.
Heather: Which is what I think we need more than ever.
Tal: You were saying that with Privacy Settings, there was this healing of a sort of fear that was going on.
Heather: Right. There’s a Buddhist phrase around when you’re working with a guru and you’re deep in your study and stuff, and sometimes there’s times in which the guru acts like a surgeon to help remove some of your, in this case, it would be maybe ego-driven something, desires, whatever, and it kind of hurts. The surgeon cuts, not to maim you, but to remove the toxicity-
Tal: That’s interesting.
Heather: So that you can heal. The scar might be there, but you’ll be stronger for it.
Tal: This is going an interesting direction. I want to just try it. We’ve talked about the theatricality of Web interactions, in a sense, and we’ve talked about how theater is managing to communicate these digital issues in an interesting way. While you were speaking just now, talking about how these weapons can either cut or heal, like a surgeon’s blade, it makes me think of the alt-right, how this has sort of evolved on the Web but it’s sort of like an unethical use of it. It’s sort of like using it to maim, using it to hurt instead of using it for that kind of deep, surgical kind of healing modality that’s possible. It makes me wonder, is there some sort of ethics of theatricality that can translate to Web culture in some sort of way? This is just purely a speculative, explorative question. I don’t expect you to have this thought through, but can this somehow bridge this … Is there some sort of thinking that perhaps we could do with this regard and making these kinds of correlations to better navigate these technologies and what they do to us?
Heather: Well, I’m not going to give you an enlightened answer to this because I am not enlightened by any means. I personally will say that number one, find the compassion first and then get rid of the poison.
There’s the other myth around peacocks. Peacocks actually, in several folk myths, are able to consume poison and transmute it-
Tal: I’ve never heard that.
Heather: To medicine. Pema Chödrön says this in one of her books. It might be from When Things Fall Apart. It could be in Start Where You Are. There’s a lot of great Pema Chödrön books. The idea that if one can find a means to swallow this poison and transmute it in a way that it can be healing or transformative, that’s the trick right now. That’s what we need to be working towards. It’s exhausting, by the way. It’s exhausting. It’s the same thing with the whole Me Too thing. It’s exhausting, but that’s why we got to have the arts. We got to have our own daily practice, our own self-care procedures because if we don’t, we’re going to get depressed. We’re going to get sad. We’re going to get angry. Again, I’m speaking from a very, very, very privileged perspective. There are a lot of things I have that a lot of people don’t have. There are a lot of opportunities I’ve been given that others may not have been given. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, but I know damn well that there are a lot of things in place that got me where I am. Again, part of that is also recognizing my own hypocrisy and being okay when somebody calls me out on my own bullshit.
Tal: There’s a sort of modesty in that.
“I feel like 99% of the world’s problems right now are because people don’t know how to communicate or don’t want to communicate or are afraid to communicate, because it creates a vulnerable place to speak one’s heart and mind.”
Heather: I don’t know, because then that could almost seem narcissistic too. “Oh, I’m really nobody, but please do talk about me.” There’s that whole weird thing. I’m just saying that I’m really just a human being trying to do my best to help people as best I can, and for me that’s through theater and performance.
Tal: There’s an acceptance of the human frailty, of the darkness.
Heather: We all bleed.
Tal: We all bleed.
Heather: We all bleed. We will all die, even those alt-right people. I feel like 99% of the world’s problems right now are because people don’t know how to communicate or don’t want to communicate or are afraid to communicate, because it creates a vulnerable place to speak one’s heart and mind. I think that this whole phenomena of podcasts that’s been going on for several years is perhaps touching upon this need. We don’t have conversations anymore, but now we have to use technology just to have this conversation. Why couldn’t we have this conversation over coffee with not it being recorded? Do you know what I mean?
Tal: I know what you mean, and it’s exactly why I decided to do this in the first place.
Heather: This is perfect then.
Tal: Because I do have these conversations all the time, and I did see that it wasn’t happening in the public sphere and that this was a way to bring it into the public sphere. You were right aligned with that. Absolutely. Any last words, please.
Heather: Just go see theater. Just go. Community theater-
Tal: If you’re in Austin, come to the Vortex.
Heather: If you’re in Austin, come to the Vortex. There’s a Google out there or DuckDuckGo, and you can research and find your local theater or some live performative event because people have put their heart and soul in that thing.
Heather: I don’t know, I’m getting all choked up about it. It’s just really important that we support artists who are doing their damnedest to communicate something that means so much to them to the strangers in their community. It is very precious, and I don’t think your cell phone is going to take it away.
Tal: Dr. Heather Barfield, thank you for this wonderful communication.
Heather: Thank you.
Tal: This great conversation. I hope we’ll do it again sometime.
Tal: That’ll do it for this interview. Thank you so much.
Heather: Thank you.