To actor Terry O’Donovan, a coffee shop isn’t just a less-expensive WeWork or a Tinder date option. A coffee shop is one of the many places we humans “go to be alone together.” And in his site-specific play User Not Found, a coffee shop becomes a place where you might suddenly learn that your ex-partner has died, that before he died he made you his digital executor, and now you have to decide whether to delete or preserve all his social media accounts.
Since User Not Found debuted in 2018, O’Donovan, the co-creator of the one-man show, has performed it over 120 times, including its most recent 10-day run at the Greene Grape Annex in Brooklyn, as part of BAM’s Next Wave 2019. Throughout the immersive performance, Terry (as played by O’Donovan) walks, dances, slithers, and weeps between the coffee shop’s tables as he scrolls through old tweets of the lover who left him twice–first with a breakup, then with a premature death. At times, he’s so close to audience members that you can smell the poppy-seed muffin as he stress-eats it.
Upon arriving at the show, stage assistants hand every audience member (each of whom passively assumes the role of coffee shop patron) a set of headphones and a smartphone. On the phone’s screen, you see what Terry sees: incoming text messages filled with shallow condolences, and old tweets and Facebook posts of his now-deceased ex-partner Luka. Reading along with him felt like a violation. I was more voyeur than audience member, and I couldn’t look away.
With each performance, O’Donovan pushes the audience members seated at the cafe tables around him to consider or reconsider their digital afterlives. As you watch Terry debate whether to delete or keep his deceased ex-partner’s social media accounts, you’re confronted with the reality of your own internet mortality–or immortality as the case may be: Do you want your Facebook to become an online gravesite of sorts, with folks leaving posts on your wall in lieu of flowers? Or is there a loved one–a digital executor–you trust to make this decision for you after you die?
On opening night, I sat down with O’Donovan before the show to pick his brain on community, death, and how social media is shaping both. At first I was a bit confused by his decision to meet up at the Greene Grape Annex, where he’d be performing in a few hours. The tables were so close that I could read the Google doc of the person sitting next to me had I felt curious enough. And the ’80s music in the background played too softly to offer our conversation any walls of privacy. But a few minutes into our back-and-forth, I realized that was sorta the point. In User Not Found, Terry pokes holes in our separate concepts of public and private, revealing how they spill into each other whether we like it or not.
So why set the show in a coffee shop? O’Donovan answered by looking around the room. “So what if that person there got a text message and found out that their partner was dead?” he asked me. “Would they reach out and ask us for help? Would they just sit there alone? If I saw someone crying would I reach out to them or not?”
You get the feeling he would. O’Donovan wore a diagonally striped sweater that looked like Banana Republic’s take on a ’90s sitcom outfit. His face is kind–slightly tired in a comforting new-dad kinda way. He bathed his answers to my questions in high-stakes words like “connection,” “comfort,” “touch,” “humanize.” User Not Found aims to humanize buildings and phones but ultimately convey that neither are fair trade-offs for the fleshy real stuff.
“Despite us having these phones and laptops, we come to these communal spaces because people need people to get through the hard things in life,” O’Donovan said. “There’s something about sharing that air and that space that’s very important.”
Sappy (though true) as that sounds, O’Donovan told me more than once that he isn’t sentimental–not when it comes to life and death and the artifacts that linger on. “We all have a friend who’s died and their Instagram profile is still there,” he said. You don’t really want to unfollow that friend, he tells me, but you also don’t want to carry around this reminder of their death in an app that stays in your pocket, that sleeps next to you each night. In large part, O’Donovan created this play with his creative partner Daphna Attias to interrogate this tension. They wanted to know, Does social media help or hinder the grieving process?
O’Donovan did his research on this question as he worked with director Attias and writer Chris Goode to create User Not Found. They talked to hospice workers, picked the brain of an expert at the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, and interviewed a woman who obsessively curates her Facebook page with the plan of giving it to her daughter as a gift once she dies.
There are a couple different types of people, O’Donovan told me: keepers and deleters. In other words, those who want their Facebook page to be memorialized once they die, and those who go into their account settings and click “delete after death.” And there is a third type of course: those who don’t want to decide–like Luka. They are the people who would rather let a designated loved one (a “legacy contact”) choose for them. As Terry says in User Not Found, “Death is a story told by the living.”
I asked O’Donovan whether he’s a keeper or deleter. “The question doesn’t really exist, because you can’t get rid of anything,” he said, but still answered anyway: “I’m definitely a deleter. It didn’t make me happy to look at Facebook,” and he imagines his Facebook page wouldn’t make the loved ones who survive him that happy either.
His answer didn’t come as that big of a surprise. After all, O’Donovan is the same man who cherishes the tangible, creating site-specific plays set in swimming pools, anchored boats, hotel rooms, and storage containers so that audience members can touch everything the actors can touch. The digital world just isn’t enough for him, dead or alive.
“Touch is so important to being human,” O’Donovan told me right at the beginning of our interview. “When we have a baby, it’s all about comfort, touch, making sure they feel secure you know?”
User Not Found explores what it means when that security is gone. “It’s about how we grieve,” he said. “We’ve always grieved and now we’ve added this new thing into the grieving process. If you’ve got all these photos and all these videos, are they helping us or hindering us to grieve? Because humans need to forget and move on in order to carry on in life. We can’t remember everything because otherwise we’d go crazy.”
During a climactic moment of User Not Found, Terry is flooded with memories of his ex-partner. Suddenly, after scrolling through some of Luka’s 30,000+ tweets, he remembers his former lover dancing around their home, reading from his iPad, sleeping next to him in bed. It overwhelms Terry. He crumbles a cookie in his hand, letting the crumbs fall to the floor before belting out: “‘Do not go gentle,’ says Dylan Thomas. ‘Horseshit!’ say I. I will take gentle at the end, that much I know for sure. But I can’t figure out what is the more gentle thing–to push the button or not to push the button.”
Jenna Barnett (@jennacbarnett) is a writer and editor currently pursuing her Masters in Journalism at NYU, where she’s studying Literary Reportage. She has published her work in McSweeney’s, Sojourners, and the Belladonna.