By Jeff Calareso
When Santa Clara University students were rehearsing for a performance of Noel Coward's play Hay Fever, their director had an unusual idea. In order to get into the mindset of the characters in the play, assistant professor of theater Kimberly M. Hill had the actors surrender microwaves, elevators, DVD players and all other forms of technology that didn't exist in 1925, the year in which the play is set. We recently spoke with Ms. Hill about the experiment and how it affected her students.
Q. There are many popular plays set in eras predating modern technology. Why did this experiment fit this particular play?
A. Mostly because the actions of the characters are partly due to their overwhelming boredom. I needed my actors to know what real boredom felt like.
Q. What was the stated goal of the technology hiatus for students performing in the play? How were you hoping to impact their performances?
A. The stated goal was to 'live like my character' for one week. This was not just to involve the absence of technology, but also to incorporate other considerations of their characters; for example, one actress wore dresses and high heels all week because her character was a 'style maven.' The hope was that they would have at least some access to the feelings their characters might feel when boredom and lack of direction overtake them.
Q. Can you describe for our readers the rules of the experiment? What was forbidden and what was permitted?
A. The rules were that they were to abandon any kind of technology that did not exist in 1925. They could use their cell phones, for example, but only as phones, and only in their rooms or at home. They could not carry the phones with them. They had to treat the phone like it was their servant and not the other way around. They could not use the computer for research or email or anything other than as a typewriter. Other activities like dinner, social gatherings, etc., were to be attempted as if they were in the 1920s. Because there is no modern equivalent to a theatrical performance or film that costs only 25 cents, they were allowed one 'night of theater,' meaning they could watch TV one night only.
If they had to use the computer at their jobs, they were allowed to do so. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward.
Q. How did students react when you first brought up the idea?
A. They were freaked out and a little cynical of the potential for success. They all thought they would fail. More interesting was the reaction of their friends, who were very concerned about the lack of ability to connect.
Q. Did you also participate in the experiment?
A. I did. I primarily cut myself off from texting, cell phone usage, computer research and computer socializing, such as Facebook. It was very freeing.
Q. Did most of the students last for a full week without modern technology?
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A. Yes. Almost all of them had no 'slips.' One actor broke halfway through and never really attempted to get back into the experiment, but the rest of them did very well.
Q. How did the students describe their experience? How did this force changes in their daily lives?
A. They described it as I hoped they would - they were tremendously bored. They revealed a bit of irritation with actually having to 'pay attention in class' because they couldn't be on their computers or texting their friends. They got more homework done in a shorter amount of time. They cleaned their rooms!
I think it will have a long term resonance with them as they remember how easy it was to unplug, how productive they became and how creative it helped them become.
Q. In the end, what impact do you think this had on their performance in the play?
A. I think it definitely gave each of them a strong connection to and commitment in their characters - it was like they shared a secret. They were definitely more confident and had much more presence on stage in the skin of their characters.
Q. How do you hope this experiment impacts their education?
A. I hope they remember to unplug and remove their sense of servitude to the technology they carry around in their pockets. I hope they remember how easy it was to simply tell people to call them at home or that they would get back to them later. I hope they continue to go to the library and research using real books instead of Wikipedia. I hope they find time to simply be still and think. About nothing. Until they think about something.
Q. Do you think this experiment will cause any students to reconsider the role of technology in their lives?
A. I certainly hope so.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers about this experiment?
A. Oddly, I expected the students to miss or complain about the lack of texting or Facebook in their lives on that first day of the experiment, but do you know what they missed the most and what affected them the most on that first day? They never knew what time it was! No one wears a watch!