Ash Flanders brings YouTube to the stage in Meme Girls

In the next 60 seconds, approximately 300 hours of video content will be uploaded to YouTube. It’s hard to believe that the streaming site with the slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’ is only 10 years old this year, but the online trash and treasure trove has changed the way we use the internet, engage with video, and how multitudes of broadcasters define themselves.

Theatre maker Ash Flanders is a self-confessed YouTube addict and was inspired by many late nights falling down the YouTube rabbit hole (which can take you from “mongoose vs snake” to “the world’s biggest zit” in just a few clicks) to create Meme Girls — a piece of theatre about the women of YouTube, currently playing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. While the breadth of content available on YouTube is extraordinary, Flanders’ focus is on those who speak directly to the camera and share something personal with anywhere from tens to millions of anonymous viewers.

“I think these kind of ‘artless’ video clips say something far deeper,” Flanders says. “When you string them together, a strange sort of story does start to form.”

In 2011, Flanders, who is best known for his work as one half of the queer theatre group Sisters Grimm, performed a brief excerpt from an episode of Judge Judy entitled ‘The Horsewoman’ in his one-man show Negative Energy. He’d written an entire show full of monologues, but the moment which drew the greatest response was lifted straight from a TV show.

Soon after, Flanders approached Malthouse artistic director Marion Potts, with director Stephen Nicolazzo, about the possibility of creating a work which links together a number of monologues lifted from YouTube into a kind of theatrical YouTube rabbit hole.

“I don’t think anybody could be quite as obsessed with YouTube as Ash is, and certainly not with the women and the characters he’s depicting,” Potts says. “It’s not material that I would necessarily choose to do myself, but I was very interested in what they were pursuing in how the post-digital world is altering, in many ways, the very fabric of humanity and the way we relate to each other.”

Potts was most interested in what would happen if you take these pieces of intimate, on-camera performance and translated them into a theatrical setting.

“There’s that anonymous audience out there that you can’t quantify in any shape or form, and people are so intimate with it,” she says. “What happens when you bring that into a theatre where you can actually see and eyeball your audience?”

Flanders, who performs the work alongside drag queen Art Simone, wanted to question why people choose to divulge so much and give so much of themselves over to an audience. He suspects the motivation largely stems from a need for validation, and often just about being needed.

“There’s a really strong sense of the motivational speaker,” he says. “The person who’s taken their pain and decided to use that pain to help other people avoid the experiences they’ve had. By doing that, there’s now a purpose for why they went through that pain. It’s essentially trying to make order out of the chaos of life.”

Of course, trying to make sense of a senseless world is a familiar exercise for any artist, and there are certainly big questions at play in Flanders’ work. He’s particularly intrigued by how most people in our society have now, through the internet and social media, sought to commodify and curate an online persona.

“Suddenly everybody feels like there’s a press conference at their house every hour of every day: ‘what did you think about that political leader leaving?’ or ‘what do you think about gluten?'”

Most of the videos Flanders uses in Meme Girls come with a strong, clear purpose whether it be personal or political, but he says it’s often tiny moments in the seemingly lightest of videos which can reveal a person’s world view in a completely unexpected way.

“There’s a great piece which is ‘how to fold a fitted sheet’, which I’m doing. And the reason that’s in there is because the woman says ‘one of the greatest challenges you’re ever going to face in your life i how to fold a fitted sheet,’ and I thought that was such an outrageous statement. It just shows that everybody sees the world differently.”

In many ways, Meme Girls is a small departure for Flanders, who has worked mostly in queer theatre, posing questions about gender and sexuality. Last year, Sisters Grimm created Calpurnia Descending for Malthouse and Sydney Theatre Company, which divided audiences, particularly in Sydney. Beneath a glossy, bright and chaotic exterior the play was a sharp exploration of the evolution of queer culture, which some audiences found baffling. But Flanders says audience members for Meme Girls won’t have to have thought about queer culture at all, and that while the ideas underlying the piece are massive, it will have the joy with which he imbues all his work and won’t be a dry, intellectual theatrical exercise.

“I certainly know what it’s like when you’ve had a hard day and you’d actually not like to think about your life and the world for a little bit. People can either tune right in and question everything or tune right out and have a wonderful time.”

Ash’s YouTube treasure trove

None of these clips made it into Meme Girls, but they’re five must-sees, according to Flanders. Beware: some include language which may be NSFW.

1. This is what happens when a John Waters character escapes into the real world and collides with fantastic character actress Polly Holliday.

2. This proves once and for all that dogs are just as cunning and evil as cats. If the internet has proven anything it’s that you should NEVER dance on camera, only bad things happen.

3. The truth is OUT THERE. Next time someone tries to “truth” you about 9/11, the illuminati, or even gluten – play them this truth-bomb.

4. This. Is. Hip. Hop. Thanks Deena. And you know what? She was standing up straight.

5. I watch this every month or so. I’ve ruined dinner parties by making people put it on. I made it my ringtone. I even date a hairdresser now. YouTube is a powerful beast.

Meme Girls is at the Malthouse Theatre until May 2. Featured image by Sarah Walker

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