Playwright Sarah Gancher knows all too well that inspiration comes from the strangest places. For her, it was while scrolling through social media in 2016. It was the “bizarre misspellings and weird, space-alien grammar” in her feed that led her to research professional internet trolls.
“(They were) working around the clock, making fake accounts, writing fake news, and crafting memes, all to make Americans feel divided and hopeless,” says Gancher.
She came to terms with an uncomfortable fact: working as an internet troll actually fit her personality very well.
“It sounds fun,” Gancher says with a laugh. “I mean, trolls spend all day making up characters, writing dialogue, staging fights, triggering strong emotions. Then I realized, ‘Wait a minute, they’re playwrights.’”
The play Gancher created from that experience, “Russian Troll Farm”, is set to premiere at Geva on March 4, along with sculptures by local artist Henry Avignon reflecting on the 2016 election cycle and “Geva Insight” conversations on hacking and cybersecurity.
Set in the days prior to the 2016 election, “Russian Troll Farm” follows the office politics and interpersonal lives of a team of professional trolls at Russia’s infamous Internet Research Agency.
Through fake news, purposefully inflammatory memes and conspiracy theories, the real-life IRA and other cyberattackers “trolled” further discord into the American consciousness. At the time during which the play is set, the IRA had over a thousand employees who created an estimated 50,000 accounts on Twitter and nearly 3 million tweets leading up to the election.
With this production, projections and multimedia designer Jared Mezzocchi uses that seemingly endless flow of social media messaging on stage, projected on large screens. The effect creates a sense of perpetual scrolling through the workers’ tweets.
The COVID pandemic led Mezzocchi and Geva Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson to create an online version of the play through Zoom screens in a production they co-directed.
“It’s so thrilling to return to Sarah’s brilliant play, this time in person,” says Williamson. “We are delighted to bring this group of old and new collaborators to build this wickedly dark and funny show for our audience here in Rochester.”
Since 2016, the IRA has been sanctioned by the Department of the Treasury for its part in attempting to interfere with the election.
“The IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online,” a 2018 Treasury Department statement read. “The IRA also organized and coordinated political rallies during the run-up to the 2016 election, all while hiding its Russian identity. Further, the IRA unlawfully utilized personally identifiable information from U.S. persons to open financial accounts to help fund IRA operations.”
More recently, the IRA has been connected to anti-Ukrainian messaging and the head of Russian private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
“We have interfered, we are interfering and we will continue to interfere,” said Prigozhin, in a Russian social media post last year. “Carefully, accurately, surgically, and in our own way as we know how to do.”
This month, Prigozhin, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin, went further and said he created the IRA to protect the Russian information space from “boorish, aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian narrative.”
Against that backdrop, the characters in “Russian Troll Farm” are engaging in horrid and villainous behavior. Yet they are also given the same nuance and depth seen in popular workplace comedies like “The Office.”
Some of the trolls believe the mission is to exploit American antipathy and racial divides, others want to craft compelling (fake) stories. Some characters get involved romantically, and others are nervous about the consequences of their actions.
But, at the end of the day, like other office workers, all of them go out for karaoke.
“My joke is: ‘It’s not about how we wrecked the world, it’s about the friends we made along the way,’” Gancher says. “(The play is) about the people who go to work every day to poison my feed and yours. I want to make you laugh, and I want to make you think.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].