'Russian Troll Farm:' Imagine 'The Office,' But With Election Interference

Oct 23, 2020
Originally published on October 23, 2020 6:37 pm

Imagine The Office, but in St. Petersburg, Russia. And instead of Dunder Mifflin, it's the Russian government's Internet Research Agency. A new online play called Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, co-produced by TheaterWorks Hartford, TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., in association with The Civilians, does just that.

In 2016, playwright Sarah Gancher started to notice tweets with strange misspellings, and odd comments showing up on her Facebook feed. When she later read about the Internet Research Agency, it all made sense. "I realized that there's this whole building full of people in St. Petersburg where there are people that are paid to sit there and write fake news and to write Facebook posts and create memes," she says. "Their job is to pretend to be different people, to stage fights. They're essentially playwrights. They have my job."

So, Gancher, who's a fan of workplace comedies, started to create a play, both dark and funny, that imagines the lives of five people who work on the troll farm. "They go out to karaoke, they have drinks, they have arguments about workplace policy, there are people being put on performance improvement plans."

But their job, of course, is to sow discord in the American electoral process. And, Gancher says, "the actual posts and tweets that we know came from the Internet Research Agency are actually just so wild and so interesting that I thought to myself, you know what, I'm just going to use those wherever I can."

... the actual posts and tweets that we know came from the Internet Research Agency are actually just so wild and so interesting that I thought to myself, you know what, I'm just going to use those wherever I can. - Sarah Gancher

She's created a cross-section of workplace characters — the nerd, whose job is to write posts to discourage African-Americans from voting; the alpha male, who tweets out alt right memes; the sensitive would-be screenwriter, who loves making up stories; the new worker, a disillusioned former journalist: and the mean boss, a former KGB agent. Gancher plays with tone, as well. "I wanted to have fun by making sure that every part of the play is told from a different character's perspective and in a totally different and unique style," explains the playwright. "So, the first act is like a workplace comedy. The second act is sort of like a Kafkaesque nightmare. The third act is a Shakespearian revenge comedy. And then the fourth act is like a Brechtian historical epic that begins in Stalinist Russia and ends on election night 2016."

The characters in Russian Troll Farm don't just troll the Americans, they troll each other, in a way that mimics the larger politics, says the play's co-director, Elizabeth Williamson: "So, that we have on a small scale and on the large scale, the same themes playing out, the same attacks, the same takedowns."

With COVID-19 making physical productions impossible, the creators have conceived the play for Zoom – but not in the typical Brady Bunch boxes. While the five actors are in front of lights and cameras in their apartments, co-director and multimedia designer Jared Mezzocchi is creating the illusion that they're all sharing the same space, whether in the office, or in some fantasy realm. "It's a blend of filmmaking strategies, television strategies and theater strategies," he says. "And I think the easiest way to explain it is we're using Zoom as a multi-monitor system to be pulling from, like a TV studio would, of multi-cameras."

This creates new challenges for the actors. Danielle Slavick, who plays the former journalist, says she needs to have cheat sheets in front of her, to remember where to look: "You're often making eye contact with someone that obviously is not in the room with you. And you can forget whether that person is now in this scene supposed to be to your right or your left." And co-director Elizabeth Williamson adds, that because of the time lag on Zoom, "The actors are also having to listen and respond three words early, to sync up the dialog."

Sarah Gancher says she wanted to explore the emotional pull of social media. "I think these trolls are really adept at what people who study the Internet talk about as the addictive aspects of social media," says the playwright. "You know, the way in which we really start craving just that little hit of indignation or that little hit of outrage or that little hit of fear, even if they're negative emotions, somehow just the stimulation is addictive to us."

And she says the real people who worked on the troll farm four years ago did that by telling good stories. "During the 2016 election, there were Russian trolls that had become essentially conservative pundits, that were followed and retweeted and pushed out far and wide by people," says Gancher. "And, you know, I'm very positive that the same thing is true today and we just haven't found out about it yet."

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy will be performed live online through Saturday, but encore presentations will be available up to the eve of the election.

This story was edited for radio by Ted Robbins and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

OK, I want you to imagine for a moment "The Office" but in St. Petersburg, Russia. And instead of Dunder Mifflin, it's the Russian government's Internet Research Agency. A new online play called "Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy" does just that. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In 2016, playwright Sarah Gancher started to notice tweets with strange misspellings and odd comments showing up on her Facebook feed. When she later read about the Internet Research Agency, it all made sense.

SARAH GANCHER: And I realized that there's this whole building full of people in St. Petersburg where there are people that are paid to sit there and write fake news and to write Facebook posts and create memes. Their job is to pretend to be different people, stage fights. They're essentially playwrights. They have my job.

LUNDEN: So Gancher, who's a fan of workplace comedy, started to create a play both dark and funny that imagines the lives of five people who work on the troll farm.

GANCHER: They go out to karaoke. They have drinks. They have arguments about workplace policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEATERWORKS PLAY, "RUSSIAN TROLL FARM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You think you're going to - what? - start a civil war in America?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't think it's that hard.

LUNDEN: Their job is to sow discord in the American electoral process, and Gancher uses some actual tweets in the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) People for justice will never support Hillary Clinton. Not sure whether she or Donald Trump is the lesser evil - #BernieTrumpDebate #BernOrBust.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Crystal Johnson, Clinton's true face - KKK leader claims he gave $20K to Hillary Clinton campaign.

LUNDEN: Co-director Elizabeth Williamson says the characters in "Russian Troll Farm" don't just troll the Americans. They troll each other in a way that mimics the larger politics.

ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So that we have, on a small scale and on a large scale, the same themes playing out, the same attacks, the same takedowns.

LUNDEN: "Russian Troll Farm" is being done live on Zoom, but it's being mixed together to create the illusion that the actors are all occupying the same space. Danielle Slavick plays a former journalist.

DANIELLE SLAVICK: You're often making eye contact with someone that obviously is not in the room with you. And you can forget whether that person is now, in this scene, supposed to be to your right or your left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Or tell me about, you know, journalism.

SLAVICK: (As character) Oh, journalism - I used to love it. Now I hate it.

LUNDEN: Playwright Sarah Gancher says she was interested in the addictive aspect of social media, how people are stimulated by negative emotions across the political spectrum. And she says the real people who worked on the troll farm four years ago did that by telling good stories.

GANCHER: During the 2016 election, there were Russian trolls that had become essentially conservative pundits, you know, that were followed and retweeted and pushed out far and wide by people. You know, I'm very positive that the same thing is true today and we just haven't found out about it yet.

LUNDEN: "Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy" is being presented by nonprofit theaters in Connecticut and Arkansas and is being performed live online through Saturday. Encore presentations will be available until the eve of the election.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.