For Dave Malloy, whose last musical was an adaptation of War and Peace and who is currently preparing another based on Moby-Dick, an a cappella song cycle about internet addiction is a relatively modest affair. But Octet, which is currently in its final week at New York’s Signature Theatre, isn’t just about smartphones and social media (although it is about that). With a program that lists influences ranging from Black Mirror and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed to A Chorus Line and Candy Crush, it’s about what spending most of our waking hours attached to the virtual world is doing to human consciousness and how little we understand about where we’re headed next. You start out sitting in a church basement watching addicts at a 12-step meeting confess their sins one song at a time, but the songs begin to change, growing longer and less melodic, taking you into darker corners of the web and the mind.
Malloy, who wrote and starred in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, seems to thrive on setting daunting challenges for himself. After Great Comet and Moby-Dick—scheduled to debut at Boston’s American Repertory Theater in December, with a preview at New York’s American Museum of Natural History on July 26–27—he’s talked about completing his “Impossible Novels Trilogy” with a musical version of Ulysses. (Whether that’s a joke or a plan or one that turns into the other, only time will tell.) As for Octet, you might have to visit one of those aforementioned dark corners to procure a ticket, since it’s sold out through the end of its run (you can contribute to a Kickstarter for a cast recording here), but it’d be worth it. Just make sure you know the way out before you dive in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: You’ve said that for a while you were working on a show about discourse, which is not exactly an easy thing to dramatize. When did you dial in on the idea of making Octet about internet addiction?
Dave Malloy: Originally, I was going to write a show about Taoism. In Taoism, one of the themes that keeps coming back is this distrust of discourse. If something was obviously right, everyone would know it was right. If something was obviously wrong, everyone would know that it was wrong. So when we’re arguing about what’s right and wrong, those words don’t really mean anything. In looking at that and going, “Yeah, discourse doesn’t work,” I was just thinking about how discourse unfolds on the internet.
Marvin in the show, the guy that does late-night comment sessions on science forums, was totally me. I wasn’t actually commenting, but I just got obsessed with reading those things, specifically about intelligent design and creationism. That was the real rabbit hole in for me, I think because I actually understood where the intelligent designers were coming from. As a layman, when you really start to analyze evolution, it’s fucking incomprehensible. This distrust of science in general, I find a fascinating subject. That was kind of the way in. From there, it was me taking a step back and going, “Wow, how much time am I spending with my mind reading these debates? What am I doing?” And that turned into a larger question of what am I doing on my phone in general, on my computer in general?
For me, the other big thing is video game addiction. It’s something I’ve struggled with all my life—although struggled is a funny word. I’ve had some of the most profound, moving artistic experiences of my life playing video games. It can be such an incredible thing. But it can also waste so many hours.
Henry sings about Candy Crush, which was definitely my train-commute addiction for a little while. But for me, it’s more role-playing games. World of Warcraft, I had a big several-year journey with. Legend of Zelda, that’s what hooked me when I was a kid, the original one on Nintendo. Nowadays, it’s not so bad anymore. I’ll kind of play one big game for a week and finish it and then leave it alone for a while, like God of War. I just played Red Dead Redemption 2, and those kind of things. Skyrim.
Video game narratives have become so much more complicated since you were playing The Legend of Zelda. Has that influenced you as a dramatist?
Oh, strongly. The narratives have become so much more sophisticated. It’s insane. I mean, I cry playing video games regularly. If it’s a well-written, amazing video game, like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, they’re telling a story in a way that no other art form can, by putting you inside of it. You are the first-person narrator experiencing everything. It’s astonishing.
And then there are games like Candy Crush, which are mechanically engineered to appeal to our brains’ addiction centers. We don’t have a fighting chance.
With something like Candy Crush in particular, the levels are just being added at a furious rate.
You’ll never complete it. And so many of the internet things are about “You’ll never complete it.” Just thinking about infinity and the abyss and the void, that’s what the internet is. Anything you enjoy, you can just keep scrolling, keep scrolling, keep scrolling, and that is very much engineered to addict you.
Octet’s “Candy” touches on that addictive quality, and the song plays out like a high that’s wearing off. It starts off with up-tempo harmonies and rhythmic clapping, and then by the end Henry’s singing about playing games for days on end and not even getting out of bed. He mentions being on meds, and sometimes these games do feel like a kind of insidious and ineffective form of self-medication.
All of these characters have issues. They all have mental health shit that they’re dealing with. The internet is just the channel in which they’re feeding it. If the internet wasn’t there, they’d have other issues. So it’s not like the internet is causing all these things. It’s just such a rich outlet, and such an infinite outlet, that we don’t have a chance. Once you have that, wow.
You’ve got the lyric early on, “When we say in real life, that is a lie to protect us. It is all real. It is all real life.”
Super real. And I think that acknowledges that it’s changing your brain. It’s actually affecting the way that you think when you’re not online. Your brain is getting rewired. Literally. There’s a song where a character talks about how when he’s talking to someone face to face he wishes he could scroll down to the end. “Get to the fucking point.”
At what point did you decide that Octet was going to be entirely a cappella?
As soon as I realized that it was going to be basically a 12-step meeting, that was when the a cappella thing seemed dramaturgically essential. If these guys are in this intimate private space being so vulnerable, there can’t be a band in the corner. When we hear a cappella, we traditionally in America today think of Glee and Pitch Perfect, but I’m so much more interested in Meredith Monk and Toby Twining and Eastern European music and African American spirituals. “Barrett’s Privateers” was a song I was completely obsessed with, by this guy, Stan Rogers. It’s a pirate shanty, basically, but there’s this really iconic recording of that that I just had on loop for days and days. It’s just so thrilling, the human voice. It’s the best instrument.
Has working on this show changed your relationship to technology?
It did for the better, for sure, as I was writing it. I read this book, Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone. She has a very practical 30-day plan, and I did it. But then the show opened, and so reviews are coming out, people are tweeting about it, and I’m just like “oh, God.” I’m excited for the show to close so I can go back to my monastic ways.
It’s hard to beat that high of seeing someone say something great about you on the internet, but it goes both ways. Your last show, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, made it to Broadway in part because of the online fandom you’d built up over the years, but the show also closed amid a rash of online controversy, and you eventually admitted that you had “missed the racial optics” of replacing the show’s black lead actor in response to low ticket sales. Did that experience play into Octet?
Oh, hugely. The first big song, “Refresh,” is all about that. For me, what was fascinating about that was what I was doing to myself, how invested I was in the tweet of some 13-year-old with 12 followers. It didn’t matter who it came from, any word against me I felt in my soul, and I couldn’t stop looking. You realize the power of this beast, that it can actually close a show. It can destroy lives. My life didn’t get destroyed anywhere near as cataclysmically as some other people’s have, but it’s just recognizing that power and seeing how seductive that power is. Of course, the fact that someone who’s like a no-one has the power to take down someone like Harvey Weinstein, it’s all a part of that. That mob tearing these people down, like, you’re canceled, you’re done now. That’s amazing.
There’s that line in “Refresh”: “The mob never forgets/ The mob never forgives.” Social media is great at channeling outrage, sometimes at entirely deserving targets. But we don’t seem to have figured out how people are meant to make amends, or whether we even care if they do. Forgiveness doesn’t go viral.
Positivity doesn’t work in that way. It’s weird. Negativity is such a group-hive thing, but it’s hard to marshal the forces of good in a similar way, particularly in terms of redemption and forgiveness. You certainly see people rallying in positive ways, like putting up GoFundMes for someone’s illnesses or something. Those stories are heartwarming and amazing. But redemption? Oof.
Octet starts out like a 12-step meeting. There’s an introduction and an opening hymn, and then several characters tell us their stories in song. But then the lines start to blur: The songs get more complicated and less melodic, and they flow from one into the next. The audience when I saw it started out applauding after every song, and then in the second half, there weren’t really those breaks to clap in anymore. Did you plan for the overall arc of the show to work that way?
I mean, it was very intentional. Some of that is actually modeled on the way that information rabbit holes can work. You’ll start with “What was that movie that I saw when I was a kid?” And you click on that movie, and then you click on that actor, and then you click on this other movie, and you find out that this actor was actually involved in some scandal. Three hours later, you’re on some Satanist website. So that was definitely part of it.
The Chorus Line structure was very much one of the models for the show, but we needed to start complicating it, and we need to see how these characters start intersecting more. And also, contentwise, the show starts being more explicitly about this deep spiritual sadness that these characters feel, and that they’re really looking for connection in spirituality. Which isn’t as overt in Henry’s song about candy, but is very overt in Marvin’s song about thinking that he’s seeing God.
Right before that you have “Actually,” which is about online conspiracists and actually quotes the QAnon slogan “Where we go one we go all.” What was it like doing the research for that? It feels like that kind of stuff starts to stick to your brain if you look at it too long.
I was actually on a retreat working on this show when Charlottesville happened, the neo-Nazi rally. The eclipse was happening then too, and it was a wild week. That’s when I found—I remember the name, but I’m not going to say it—this actual neo-Nazi website, and went into the forums on that. That was very dark, just wallowing in the ugliness of humanity, and how dark people can be when everyone’s affirming each other, when everyone’s like “Yeah, fuck those people … ” It just gets so ugly.
So many of the pillars of the QAnon conspiracy have been proven false, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s a community there that doesn’t want to give up its reason for existing.
Well, it’s the most amazing real-life LARP. It’s like a live-action role-playing game, but the stakes are so high. It’s such an amazing story, and the fact that anyone can be a part of that story by connecting this obscure political figure to this obscure political event … I totally get the appeal of it. Thankfully, my mind didn’t go into that, just because I actually abhor politics in general. I don’t actually know most of the names that they’re talking about, other than Clinton and Obama. But I totally get it. Also, I was on incel forums, and I was an awkward fat teenager, and I had no luck with women for a long time. So I got it. I was reading what these guys were saying, and feeling that loneliness, and that desperation, and they’re finding a community of people that feel that same thing. And then I’m like, “Goddamn, if I had found that group when I was 14 or something, who would I be today?” That’s really terrifying.
I’m curious about the character of Saul in Octet. He starts off being a kind of [Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder] Bill W. figure—the support group is called “Friends of Saul” and he seems to be the one who brought them all together, although we realize none of them has actually met him in real life. But towards the end you suggest that he’s been present all along, possibly watching on a hidden camera, but maybe also in some less definable way. How did he become a part of the show?
Narratively, he’s just a little bit of a MacGuffin. He’s just a thing that’s slightly in the background, driving some things forward. One thing I wanted to capture was that sense of mystery, that sense of when you go into a new space, like, “Who am I talking to? Who are these people?” As part of my research, I was doing all these different singing groups. I’d do ones like a Sacred Harp night, or a barbershop quartet competition. And one night I went to this group of rounds enthusiasts, these people who are really into singing rounds. It was this apartment in Chelsea somewhere, I found them on the internet, there was maybe 20, 25 people. I think my wife and I were the youngest people there. But it was very clear that it was a very dear community. We listened as one person would get up and teach the round to everyone, and then they would sit down, and another person would get up and teach their round for the night. And all throughout this, people were saying things about, it wasn’t Saul, it was Sal. Like, “Sal would love this one. We’ll do this one for Sal. If only Sal were here.”
When we actually got to the break, where they did meeting notes and everything, people started talking about, “We went and visited Sal a couple weeks ago, and we think he recognized us a little bit, he smiled when I said this.” It was clearly someone who’d been a member of the group and who’d had a stroke or something and was now in a hospice situation. And then they were like, “But we’re so glad he’s here tonight in the songs. We all love you.” And they waved, and there was a webcam up on the ceiling, and then it dawned on us that, oh my God, they were transmitting this to this guy. It was so beautiful, that this guy had a laptop in front of him, and he was in a coma or some kind of state of unconsciousness. Maybe he could understand it, maybe he couldn’t, but they had piped the music. And I just found that so beautiful […] but then also, there was this creepy surveillance thing. So for me, Saul is equally this kind of guru or mentor figure who’s caring for people, and putting them together, but also this kind of creepy surveillance figure. Is he a little God? Is he an artificial intelligence? All these things are certainly possible.