Surrounded by Screens

Connecting to Dear Evan Hansen and each other

If you’ve heard anything about theater in the past year (not including Hamilton—sorry, fellow history geeks), it was most likely about the Tony Award-winning smash hit musical Dear  Evan Hansen. The story centers on an ordinary teenager, Evan Hansen (surprise), who is plagued by social anxiety. When a classmate commits suicide within the first half of act one, Evan is given an opportunity to write himself into the narrative, to pretend he was the late Connor’s best friend. The show makes us question society’s obsession with “fitting in” and the lengths that we are willing to go to in order to make ourselves feel noticed. While these questions are troubling, the musical’s set design brings up a different pressing issue: social media.

Walking in to Broadway’s Music Box Theater, the first things that caught my attention (and probably everyone else’s) were the giant screens that surrounded the entire stage. They made the actors look small, and they made me, as an audience member, feel even smaller. When the first chord of music struck, these screens lit up, flashing social media updates from different characters from the play in tandem with breaking news headlines. All of the action was backdropped by an ever-changing tapestry of lights and words, shifting so quickly that I found myself stressed out by the constant feed of information about people who I knew didn’t even exist.

For the next two hours, I watched Evan squirm at the screens, surrounded by his classmates’ takes on his behavior. Even at his weakest moments, he could not escape the flow of information. I was reluctant to turn my phone back on after leaving the theater. I didn’t want to see the screen glaring back at me, to scroll through a string of updates about events that I didn’t attend or didn’t know about. For the first time, I felt consciously aware of how one look at a video of a friend dancing, or laughing, or frankly showing any kind of joy, could make me feel utterly lonely in the matter of a few seconds.

Arriving at Brown, I felt like I may as well have been back in the Music Box, surrounded by overpowering screens. Each face was new, each building unfamiliar, every Snapchat story I saw of my high school friends captioned “I love college!” or “Best day ever!” made me want to sink onto the floor and just stay there. For days (which felt like years), my phone was like a torture device, showing me all of the selfies I should have been taking with all of the best friends I should have made.

I wondered what was wrong with me. It had been a week. How could I not already have made a solid group of friends? How was everyone on my Instagram feed posting from parties while I was still getting lost on my way to class that morning? Was I so incapable of making friends that even after a week of living on campus, I still had not posted a Facebook update of me drinking bubble tea on the street with some girls in matching outfits? How was I going to find a roommate for sophomore year? How was I going to meet my future maid of honor? I felt like Evan Hansen. I was surrounded by screens and feeling the constant crushing feeling of inadequacy and solitude.

Over the ensuing days, I began to feel slightly more comfortable. I talked to new people every day and even began to formulate some actual friendships. My dorm room began to look familiar, and my inbox was full of emails about club meetings and upcoming events. I was still plagued by the internet, but I have begun to accept that the stream of pictures, videos, and status updates I see every day creates an image of the world that is so far from the truth that it might as well be its own fictional play. I wouldn’t post a picture of myself crying in my dorm room, or doing homework in the library, or calling my mom for the third time that day, so I doubt anyone else would either. Like Evan Hansen, I had to find a way to become aware of the falsities being shoved in my face by screens every day. I wonder how many of the pictures I’ve seen were taken purely to post on Snapchat. I have learned that homesickness, awkward conversation, and confusion are the most common activities college students partake in daily, including me. I don’t know how long it’ll take me to feel at home in my new environment. Maybe I never fully will. But I know that every day gets better. And no matter what my phone wants me to believe, I’ve decided that this progress is enough.