Tribeca Interviews: Actress Robin Singer Talks Short Film ‘Aphasia’ And the Price of Being Constantly Plugged In
Picture this: You’re sitting with a friend at a restaurant table enjoying an equally good meal and conversation. Suddenly, your cell phone, which until now has been lying lifeless next to your complementary glass of water, vibrates with a text message. Instinctively, you quickly reach down to check it, just in case it is something of importance. As your eyes skim over the words, your thumbs start to do what they know best: typing back. But it doesn’t end on that one text. Instead, you find yourself engaged in a continuous chat, despite the fact that your friend is still talking to you on the other side of the table. And unless you’re a fantastic multitasker, there’s a good chance that you’ve muted them out at this point, nodding your head at appropriate junctures in zombie-like fashion as you type away on your smartphone. Congratulations, you’ve managed to make the other person feel slightly ignored and out of place. While this common scenario — which we’ve all probably found ourselves in (or are guilty of) — isn’t one that you’ll find in the short film Aphasia, its question of “what price are we willing to pay for being constantly plugged in?” certainly is.
Aphasia tells the story of Emily, a 20-something woman living in New York City who texts non-stop, orders sushi online, interacts with her smart TV programming and checks her Facebook every few minutes. Serving as her alarm clock, her cell phone even chimes in when it is time to drink some water. Clearly, she’s living the digital life. But all that changes when her crush asks to meet in-person, forcing Emily to “suddenly come face to face with the consequences” of living in a semi-virtual world. Speaking to the addictive use of technology by our society today and our reliance on it to complete day-to-day tasks, Aphasia asks us to stop and think for a second on how its constant usage is affecting not only our minds and lives but our social relationships. Questioning whether technology brings us closer together or alienates us more than ever, writer and actress Robin Rose Singer took time out during the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss her character Emily, a generation raised on iPhones and tablets, and her love for handwritten letters.
GALO: The use of technology in the film is a bit terrifying and certainly eye-opening. The press kit notes that you were inspired to pursue this idea for a screenplay when you were out one Friday night in New York City and noticed that everyone was on their phones, barely talking with one another. I too have noticed this phenomenon whenever I am out on the town, especially when looking at the younger generations. They’re constantly connected to their devices, as if they’re a part of them almost. Why do you think this is a problem? And how is it affecting the way we communicate with others?
Robin Rose Singer: I read an article once that noted that 10 percent of human communication is the actual words we say, 20 percent is tone of voice, and a whopping 70 percent is body language. If this is actually true, then by relying so much on things like texts, e-mail, and Facebook leaves us communicating at a 10 percent capacity. I am concerned that if we continue on like this, people will stop learning the nuances of proper social behavior. There’s an anxiety in the way we communicate with people now as well — we’re expected to be constantly available all the time. A very distant acquaintance once texted me at one in the morning to send me her new acting reel. I asked her to keep it to business hours, and she got angry with me.
Then, of course, you get those texts and e-mails where, if you don’t punctuate properly, people think you’re angry at them. I know many people — myself included — who have suffered through fights because of a missing smiley face or exclamation point.
GALO: Apart from writing and producing the film, you also starred in it as “Emily.” Why was it important for you to play the lead role in this film instead of having someone else telling the story on screen?
RS: My primary craft is as an actor, but when I wrote this film, I wanted to be very careful that I wasn’t creating a film just as a showcase for my acting work. So I created a role that could literally NEVER be a part of an acting reel (if you watch the film, you’ll understand what I mean).
The important thing, I think, in playing Emily for me was that she was immediately familiar to people, and [that] the audience could recognize themselves in her. We are in her home, watching her go about her daily life for much of the film, so the acting has to be very naturalistic and intimate, almost like the audience is a voyeur. I felt like I was just as guilty of Emily’s behavior as anyone was, so it seemed fitting to play her. I have had similar interactions with people via text and Facebook messaging in the past, so it was partially to remind myself that I wasn’t above the story or Emily’s behavior myself.
GALO: One aspect that stood out to me in the film was when the delivery guy (Herbie Go) comes with Emily’s dinner. There was not a single word that was exchanged between them, not even a “thank you.” It was very cold and distant, not something you would expect out of customer and sales relationships. Do you think that as technology advances, we become more tuned out from the “real world” and all that it entails, and therefore, lonelier? Is it also affecting our etiquettes and how we behave socially?
RS: Absolutely, in New York, we all live on top of each other, and yet it’s very easy — in a city of over eight million people — to go about your day without ever interacting with anyone. Automation makes everything easier. Seamless delivery has run an ad campaign specifically championing a lack of human interaction, portraying talking to a human being as a hassle and inconvenience.
I think the more that people become enraptured with their online lives, the easier it will be to tune out [of reality]. Having a portable device always on your person that allows you to read the news, surf the Internet, play games, and watch movies without ever looking up, [it] means that people are increasingly less interested in the world around them.
It used to be that you would just patiently wait for someone to meet you for a coffee, maybe striking up a conversation with a stranger next to you or just taking in the scenery. Now there are 20 ways to occupy your time all in the palm of your hand.
GALO: In your own life, or in observing the lives of others, have you noticed any problems or challenges in communication (or perhaps negative or awkward behavioral aspects) that were caused by technology?
RS: I have. Personally, I think twice now about making phone calls, which I think is weird. I’m fully convinced my sister is afraid to call people on the phone — she’s actually made me do it for her before.
I’ve also noticed that I get incredibly impatient when I have to handwrite anything, and I probably recognize the handwriting of about five people in my life, most of whom I’m related to. My production partner and I have had a company for over two years, and I don’t think I could pick her handwriting out of a lineup. That’s crazy! Handwriting is such a personal, creative, and stylized thing. It requires specific fine motor skills and spatial reasoning. I wonder how much of our brain is lying dormant these days because of little things like that.
GALO: Taking it a step further while keeping it in line with the film’s theme, how do you think technology affects dating and relationships? Does it create barriers and superficiality?
RS: People have developed [this] attitude that they should be shopping around for a partner. Things like Tinder and all these dating Web sites, [they] allow you to curate your personality and distill it into bullet points and photos with all your best angles. That’s not what love is though, in my opinion. Love, to me, is all the horribly messy parts in-between. I also think it is incredibly weird and disappointing that people just beginning to date add one another on Facebook and have instant access to everything in each other’s lives. I personally cannot stand getting together with someone to have a conversation, only to realize they already know way more about me than I thought, because they’ve searched through a profile. I am pretty quiet on social media these days, but I still think it’s weird that people know what kind of music I like or what my parents do without my having to tell them.