How is a city of 10 million people known for being the loneliest place in the world? Just watch any indie movie with a New York City backdrop and a Labyrinth score and find yourself suddenly wanting tattoos of the words melancholy and ennui. It can seem that in all of those 10 million people, not one of them understands us.
Luckily, in this modern age, we have billions and billions of people at our fingertips thanks to something called the internet. Or at least this is the perspective of Katie Mack, self professed social media fan, people lover, and performance artist. During the pandemic when Mack began to feel the pangs of loneliness, she popped onto the internet to alleviate this ache, and despite thousands of studies saying that the internet can lead to depression, Mack had an opposite experience.
“As someone who used it relatively casually prior to the pandemic, I found that applying measured amounts of intentional social media time actually left me feeling giddy and hopeful about the future and humanity,” said Mack.
And then Mack went through a break up, during the pandemic, that left her feeling nothing short of broken.
“My levels of co-dependency with my partner were so high that when we separated it felt like a drug withdrawal,” something that Mack has first hand knowledge about, ending her addiction with heroin in 2011 and alcohol in 2019, “and because of the pandemic I couldn’t get in front of people for help.”
So Mack put her heartbreak front and center on her Instagram using the hashtag #breakupcontent, and suddenly found herself fielding 1-3 DMs a day where people would pour out their own personal heartaches to her.
“I found out pretty quickly that literally hundreds of people could relate.”
When PACA (Performing Artists Collective Alliance) theater in Erie, PA reached out about doing a virtual/in-person hybrid solo show right as theaters were allowing 50 persons or less into spaces, Mack knew she wanted to write a show for her online audience by literally using her Instagram as the backdrop to unpack her relationship with self and healing.
“I knew I had to update my in-person audience with what my online audience had been witnessing for months, so I asked the audience to bring their phones with them to the show and use their own social media to look at mine”. You can view the workshop version of the show here.
Working on the show with ex-ex-ex-boyfriend, Eric Anthamatten, proved to be a cathartic experience which expedited her healing.
“It felt like I had turned a corner,” Mack said about working on the show.
But it turned out there was a corner around this corner. Two weeks after #breakupcontent closed, Eric Anthamatten, her now collaborator, was murdered on his trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
“I wanted to be around people who knew Eric immediately. And then I wanted to be around people who understand this deep loss. That’s when I turned back to the internet. I remember searching the simplest hashtag I could think of: #grief,” said Mack, “and this opened up a permission I hadn’t given myself yet. An excuse or even a push to allow myself to lean into the pain of losing someone you love. One video led to the next, and I couldn’t stop crying, sobbing and sobbing missing Eric so much while identifying with strangers who were missing their own loved ones. And then, after about an hour of this, I turned it off, and then as if I had gotten it out of my system for the time being, I was able to function for the rest of the day.”
Mack continued this ritual, searching #grief, #griefjourney, #trauma, #personaljourney finding stranger after stranger and meme after meme that subtly expressed exactly how she felt, something she couldn’t articulate. “It was the not feeling alone and validation that I was allowed to be this sad that helped”.
Although this didn’t round out her mourning journey, it became such a big part of her artistic lens that when off the WALL productions out of Pittsburgh offered to commission her to write a solo show.
“I think we grieve differently and honor the dead differently now that we use social media as a way of self expression. Our ability to deal with loss and mourn are different than they were in 2019, and social media and the internet are part of that. In some ways, this is what #UglyCry is about. ”.
Mack’s new show, #UglyCry: grief is different now, requires audience members to reflect on their own mourning practices, mortality, and explore the future of grieving in the age of the internet, AI, and AR.
“At the end of the day, writing this show has given me more time with Eric,” says Mack, “I went from rereading our text messages every day to creating what feels like new moments with him with Artificial Intelligence tools. The audience will use their phones just as I did as a soft opening to confront their own personal losses and begin to look at their own rituals around mourning in small and big ways”.
#UglyCry will run in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Stage, September 22-October 14th, and make its way to NYC at The Chain Theater from October 28th-November 18th, 2023.
“This interactive show is guaranteed to be an experience you’ve never had at the very least,” says Mack, “and at the most, it might change the way you experience literally everything.”