Geniuses, you are live on Channel 4. Please do not swear.
Reality television: the cultural phenomenon tightroping the fine line between taboo guilty pleasure and outright fodder for controversy and heated debate. Albeit not to everyone’s taste, there is a certain sadistic joy in the act of spectating, ogling at everyday behaviours. Viewing the lives of others so intensely has come back to bite; reality television now pervades every channel, bombarding us with yet another series of Love Island, or the inevitable reincarnation of structured reality shows à la TOWIE.
In conversation with Fishbowl Theatre members, writer Aaron Kilercioglu and director Issy Snape, I am invited into the world of Genius, a work-in-progress at NSDF this year. Written and devised entirely during lockdown (“I haven’t even seen Issy in over a year,” Aaron tells me), Genius mobilises reality television as the vehicle to explore issues of exceptionalism within our society. Through this familiar framework, Fishbowl Theatre are interrogating the way society awards value to figures we barely know, valuing them over others based on characteristics they perform on our screens. In our discussion Aaron and Issy take me through their creative process: Love Island, Elon Musk, and the image of Einstein’s brain in a jar, being the seemingly disjointed components that led to their brainchild, Genius.
Fishbowl find inspiration in “real-life stories you probably haven’t heard of.” When asked about the specificities of Genius’ inspiration, Issy introduces me to the scandal surrounding the brain of Albert Einstein. Stolen by pathologist Thomas Harvey during his autopsy, Einstein’s brain became the subject of investigation, defying Einstein’s adamant wishes that his body was not to be studied posthumously. “There’s really interesting intersections between ideas of reverence toward geniuses and celebrity culture,” Issy continues, elucidating on the notoriety Einstein accrued from people who were unable to understand his work, let alone who knew him. It is a grotesque parallel – our current treatment of television personalities and the sensationalising of historical figures such as Einstein – and yet, it works. This parallel has nurtured Fishbowl Theatre’s trajectory towards reality television being their theatrical backdrop.
Genius pits an ensemble of so-called “Einsteins” against one another, the winning couple having to produce a genius baby capable of solving present-day emergencies. Here, Aaron circles our conversation to the now, commenting on his frustration that solutions to present issues “are so focused on individual exceptionalism,” satirising the ethos that “Elon Musk is going to save climate change!” The cult of celebrity is at boiling point; a saviour complex in reverse and dialled to 100. Fishbowl Theatre are allowing us to confront the energy we put into influencer culture and the media figures whose presence only goes skin deep. If the world is a stage, these reality stars are its travelling troupe. The raw realism Big Brother introduced us to has become a parade of performativity. Hate them or love them, we revel in the performance of it all!
Geniuses, you have 30 seconds to say your goodbyes. We’re coming to get you.