During May 20–22, University Theater (UT) livestreamed performances of third-year Brandon Zang’s original play Welcome Back to My Channel, which incorporates a mix of live video calls and prerecorded multimedia pieces. The play follows the life of Martha (Tess Ortego, third-year), a popular makeup influencer, as her off-screen relationship with her boyfriend Will (Nick Schwarz, first-year) begins to disintegrate.
Following a drop in the number of views on her videos, Martha’s manager, Benny (Jayda Hart, second-year), urges her to pursue a collaboration with a popular male TikToker. The collaboration is extremely successful, but Will becomes frustrated with Martha for her willingness to aid in the spread of rumors of a relationship between her and the TikToker for the sake of popularity.
Meanwhile, Saskia (Shreya Shettigar, fourth-year), a younger influencer, gaslights Martha through a video confession. Benny urges Martha to issue a public apology even though the video Saskia used as evidence of Martha’s vile character was a staged act the two performed together as a collaboration for laughs.
Martha is shunned from the makeup influencer community and finally decides to take a break from her life as an influencer to spend time thinking about what she wants in life. When prompted by Marcus (Noah Friedlander, fourth-year), a fellow influencer and streamer, about her genius plan to get back into the influencer business, she states that she doesn’t have one. Sheltered and naive from knowing nothing but the influencer lifestyle since middle school, Martha finally starts to act on her own interests, singing and songwriting.
The play concludes with Martha reading out the lyrics to a song she wrote about no longer wanting to hide behind a screen and accepting that things don’t have to stay the same as she grows up: “Nothing ever stays the same,” she writes. “The only constant is change.”
Zang’s Welcome Back to My Channel is a fascinating exploration of the relationship fractures and the uncertainty in identity that come with a heavily commodified digital world. From Benny’s own channel about her life as a manager and desire for recognition to Marcus’s confession about why he chose to become a streamer, the cast teases out each character’s insecurities while building a narrative around Martha’s own inability to keep her relationships afloat. The Maroon sat down with Zang to discuss the inspirations behind his play, the role of influencers in a social media–dominated world, and the virtual theater production process.
Chicago Maroon (CM): How did you first get the idea for Welcome Back to My Channel?
Brandon Zang (BZ): I wrote this during quarantine when I watched a lot of videos. I binged a lot of James Charles [and] Addison Rae, and I got TikTok as well. During COVID, when there was nothing else to do, I got really hooked [on social media], and it became a guilty pleasure to watch this fascinating world of social media influencers and their super crazy lives.
For me, there was something very theatrical about the way they presented themselves. And it was also very weird because they were the same age as me or slightly older or younger. Imagining their lives being that public [was strange]. Another factor was [that] I looked through a bunch of plays and could not find one that worked really well for a virtual format. So I wanted to write a play that was specifically designed to be performed over a platform like Zoom. I don’t think there are any plays that really focused on very contemporary issues like social media influencers or social media in general, so I felt like there was a void [I could fill].
CM: What was your inspiration for the chat messages over different social media platforms between the scenes?
BZ: The chats were supposed to be transitions. The actors had to do [a lot of the design and technical elements] themselves because it’s in their own living spaces, so they actually needed a lot more time compared to a normal, traditional production of changing sets and changing locations. Also, those transitions were a way to keep the energy going within the play that wouldn’t distract you from the main story.
My inspiration was chat stories, like horror stories, where it is very suspenseful and just a screenshot of a phone, one person texting another person. I thought it was a very creative and also very easy way to make a transition. Each of them was supposed to represent a separate narrative, it wasn’t one person talking to everybody in their life. All of them were based on my personal experiences. Every single one of those conversations, I’ve had more or less with another person, over Messenger or text. Except one—the dress one—I’ve never had someone text me, “Here are the clothes that you should buy,” and peer-pressure me to buy something. But everything else, I could point you to the exact conversation where I got inspiration from.
For me, the whole play was about how our relationships have changed through social media and online platforms, and I think that’s super relevant during COVID because people just haven’t been able to get together. And I think it’s interesting to see what things have changed but also what has stayed the same. The text with Chad was about how toxic masculinity and homophobia still persist, and when you’re talking via chat, it can make it even worse.
CM: At one point, Martha says she just wants to have something normal, and Benny responds by saying that everyone is an influencer. What does that mean both for us in society and for Martha’s own ability to really start something for herself?
BZ: I think the first part—what does that mean for us?—I think it’s taking a closer look at how social media has modified our lives, because Martha was saying, “Influencers? Why do they call us content creators and not something else?” The main point of influencers is to make you buy something. That’s how they make their income, through product placements and sponsorships. Doing reviews, helping with PR, that’s the whole setup. [When] people watch them, they want to see all these very beautiful people leading these very perfect lives.
And I think, to a certain extent, [our own lives reflect that same goal]. When we post a picture to Instagram, when we update our status on Facebook, when we snap people on [Snapchat], what is it that we are trying to say? Is it trying to have people be happy for us? Because we’re having a good life and we’re trying to share the happiest moments in our lives? Or is it trying to influence people in a way? This is what a good life looks like, this is what an ideal living experience looks like, and I’m having it and you should have it too. And if you don’t have it, then you’re not as happy as I am, you’re not as healthy as I am. Social media has turned into this motivational, inspirational kind of message that’s very commodified and very capitalized, [like] the idea of #girlboss. A “girlboss moment” is very much tied to one’s ability to make money, one’s ability to be productive in a capitalistic society, and one’s ability to afford things—to make sure that they look like they’re expensive. So I think [the play] is not a critique of social media or technology. It’s just the way that capitalism and these societal systems are taking over technology in a way that is commodifying our lived experiences.
For Martha? [laughs] I think that’s supposed to be a little bit more open-ended about what happens to Martha. Martha is very naive and very sheltered. There was a joke [in which she says], “I just want a normal job, like Will,” but Will is a grad student. She’s so sheltered that she thinks being a physics grad student is a normal job. A lot of [her experience] is about growing up. I think when we commodify our lived experiences like this, we end up growing up much earlier than people in previous generations have, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But [this especially affects influencers], for example James Charles, the [quintessential] social media makeup influencer, was a big inspiration for this entire story. In one video, he was like, “I’ve never drank before, this is my first time drinking. Because in high school, I didn’t really have any friends, [and] I never went to college, so I never went to parties. I don’t really know what it means to be a young person.” And that was really interesting for me to hear because a lot of young people look up to [Charles] as an example of [how] a Gen Z person or millennial should be living. He in a certain way represents a generation. How can he do that when he hasn’t even had the lived experience of growing up? Because of his social media presence, and because he got famous early during high school, he never really got to grow up in the same way that everybody else does.
I think we see that a lot with Martha with her obsession with drinking wine even though she has never drunk before. That’s her attempt at being like, “I am an adult, just like everybody else my age,” but also the realization that she doesn’t have all the lived experiences other people have. And it’s scary, because now she’s older and needs to redefine herself because she was never given the chance to find herself in the first place. So that’s what’s in store for her in the future: growing up and learning about the world around her and making up for all the years that she missed out on while being an influencer.
CM: In Martha’s dreams, she’s always talking to herself embodying another character. Why did you choose that versus having Martha talk to the character directly?
BZ: First of all, COVID. Let’s just say we couldn’t get two actors in the same place without masks on [laughs]. That’s the main reason. But I think there’s a lot to be said about how [Martha’s] not angry, necessarily, at the other characters or other people. Her anger and emotions are her emotional projection of what [these people] are to her. She has a lot of insecurities, and she projects those insecurities onto other people [as if] all those people are out to get her. And some people are, as we’ve seen with Saskia, but [generally they’re not]. It’s her emotional response to what [these people are] saying and what they’re doing, so I think that’s why they’re represented by herself, but [it’s] mostly because I wanted to have a prerecorded, in-person kind of situation, and I didn’t want her monologuing. I wanted it to be a conversation. And this is something you can never really do in real theater—it was edited. It was an exhausting process, honestly. [In real theater] maybe you could use a mirror and some lighting effects or get an actor that looks a lot like her. [Those] would have been the only ways, but this is something [for which] I feel like we took advantage of the virtual platform instead of treating it as a compromise.
CM: What was the production process like?
BZ: It was a lot of logistics. Everybody on the design team did a fantastic job. Special shout-out to my production manager, Nicola [Lustig, fourth-year], for dealing with the logistics. Because she [Ortego] was unmasked, we couldn’t be in this space [until] 30 minutes after she [left]. We were in the mezzanine, which was considered a different space, but there was a maximum of five people. Because you can only have five people in the mezzanine, [it was about asking] who do we need to be in this space? Who can be outside that we can call on if we need help?
[For] the filming process, I think arduous is the word to describe it, especially for the last scene, where Martha was talking to herself. We had to do two separate days to film it because the first time we filmed, we couldn’t line it up exactly. And I wanted to preserve the theatricality of it as much as possible because in theater, unlike [in] film, you wouldn’t cut a lot. You want to keep it as, like, a stage. So I wanted [the scene] to have her sitting on one end of the table, the other person sitting on the other side, and we see the whole stage in one single shot. Obviously, that was really difficult to do and edit. In the end, all the scenes had cuts to make them closer, which is fine. But it was [difficult] trying to maintain the theatricality. I’ve worked on a lot of virtual productions now, mostly as an actor, but a big question I think a lot of people end up asking is like, “Are we making a virtual play? Or is this just a short film?” [laughs], especially if you are prerecording a lot of stuff like with [My H8 Letter to the Gr8 American Theatre], which happened last quarter. It was that question that came up: What makes a work theatrical? What makes a work a film? That line becomes blurry when we go into virtual, prerecorded production.
CM: A lot of elements in the play, such as the video calls between characters or how they interacted, fit the virtual setting. What do you see for the future of this play? Do you see a possibility for it to be transformed into a real-life setting?
BZ: That’s a great question. For now, I don’t have any future plans for the play. I’m not workshopping it more, just leaving it as is. I think it could definitely be adapted into a live stage performance, but that would probably have to involve cuts and modifications to the script just because a lot of the things that we added, for example the vlog with Saskia, would be really difficult to do in a live theater setting. Unless they just play a video of it, which depends on the director, but for me, that would not be the best way to present it. But I genuinely intended [Welcome Back to My Channel] to be optimized for a virtual platform, and I agree with the sentiment that virtual plays don’t make a play lesser. I think a lot of people feel like it’s a compromise they have to work with, especially if they’ve done all the pre-production process for a play that was meant to go on live, but I think that COVID at least showed us there’s a lot of opportunities for virtual mediums to be well executed and to take advantage of things that were not made available in a purely live format. And I’m excited to see, after COVID, whether we see more multimedia works in the realm of theater, just because we have explored all these technologies due to COVID, and whether we would incorporate that into how we do theater in the future. That’s something I’m interested in.
The process is definitely not as fun when everything is over Zoom. Communication is more difficult. You’re going to be more stressed out, and you don’t feel the whole camaraderie that you would get if you’re in an in-person situation. So I get the urge of everybody wanting to go back to live theater, but I think there’s also things that we can learn from very excellent virtual productions I’ve seen from professional theaters that I think could be in some way or another [be] integrated into the traditional theater process.
CM: Talking about in the future, what other things are you working on right now? What plans do you have coming up?
BZ: I’m working on a treatment [a document that summarizes the plot] for a children’s play right now. I’m also working on my thesis, which is a play about things. I’m not sure what it’s about yet. [laughs] But yeah, those are the things I’m working on, and who knows, hopefully UT will have some live, in-person stuff next year. Participation and involvement within UT have been low, and it’s understandable. It’s hard to be motivated for virtual production, so I’m just hoping that with the reopening of the University and theater, [I] and everybody else in the community could come back and have a fun time together like we used to.