Ottawa playwright Vishesh Abeyratne sees similarities between Internet content moderators and overseas sweatshop workers. Both must make tremendous sacrifices for the benefits of people living comfortable lives in wealthy countries.
Over Zoom, Abeyratne tells Pancouver that he’s read many stories about content moderators working for companies contracted by social-media giants.
“The thing that really disturbed me was the fact that there was no mental-health support to help them process what they were seeing every day,” Abeyratne says. “A lot of them have nightmares on a regular basis. A lot of them find it very difficult to function on a regular level because of the sheer amount of violence and traumatic material that they’re forced to consume each day.”
This is the inspiration for his new short play, Sin Eaters of the 21st Century, which is set a little while in the future. It revolves around an international student who applies to work as a content moderator in Canada. His student visa has expired but he can’t return to his war-torn country.
“The manager tries to sort of subtly warn him away,” Abeyratne reveals.
Meanwhile, a second storyline involves two other women, including an undocumented Mexican-American. She has fled America following the election of a Trump-like demagogue as president.
“She hasn’t been able to see her family in a long time,” the playwright states. “So the play is kind of about her finding a friend in this other veteran moderator, who’s been there for a long time and has kind of become desensitized to it.”
Sin Eaters is part of Truth & Lies
Pi Theatre has billed Sin Eaters of the 21st Century as a “pitch-black horror-comedy for the digital age”. And from what Abeyratne observed at the first table read, there were a lot of laughs.
The Vancouver theatre company has included the short play in its season closer, Truth & Lies. It’s an anthology with two other plays—QAmom by Sebastian Archibald and Disrupted by Lucia Frangione. Plus, there’s a virtual-reality narrative by Pippa Mackie called Smother Me In Your Love.
They are all set in the “post-truth era” in which social media, propaganda, and conspiracy theories collide. Pi Theatre artistic director Richard Wolfe directs Truth & Lies. It features performances by Carmel Amit, Kwasi Thomas, Manuela Sosa, and Robert Garry Haacke in the short plays, with Andrii Krupnyk making a digital appearance.
Abeyratne describes the other works in Truth & Lies as thought-provoking, eerie, and surreal.
“I’m pretty confident that the rest of them will get people thinking [and] make people laugh,” he declares. “They will unsettle people. I hope my play does the same.”
In fact, as he was writing the play, two characters revealed themselves as undocumented.
“The reason that they were there—the reason that they were working this really horrible job and destroying their mental health and their sense of self-worth—was because it’s the only option available to them,” Abeyratne says. “It’s the only job that will pay them in such a way that they won’t be tracked.”
That’s because these content moderators are paid under the table.
Watch this Great Canadian Theatre Company interview with Vishesh Abeyratne
Abeyratne writes about responding to trauma
However, on a deeper level, Sin Eaters of the 21st Century also grapples with the effects of being traumatized on a daily basis.
According to Abeyratne, people in this situation can go in one of two directions. They may become bitter, withdrawn, and self-centred, hardening themselves to the world. Or, in some circumstances, they can become kinder.
“You can choose to be more empathetic if you can choose to channel your grief and your rage and your anxiety and your depression into helping other people so that they don’t fall into that same pit,” he says. “I think, at its core, the play sort of argues for that kind of approach to being human.”
Abeyratne is the son of Sri Lankan immigrants who moved to Montreal more than three decades ago. His father worked for the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a UN agency based in the city.
In a 2021 interview with the Playwrights Guild of Canada, Abeyratne said that he was one of only two brown kids in his grade in school. He knew what it was like to be the “odd one out”. He started writing plays at the age of 18.
“What interests me in playwriting are the same things which I imagine interest all of us who practice the craft—the unpredictability of live theatre, the boundless possibility contained within an empty space, the irresistible musicality of spoken dialogue,” Abeyratne told the Playwrights Guild of Canada.
But then, Abeyratne disclosed that he also has a very personal reason for being drawn toward theatre: he is autistic. Because of this, he frequently must “mask” his true self and present a filtered version of his personality to the world.
Theatre drops the mask
Speaking to Pancouver, Abeyratne acknowledges that everyone masks to varying degrees in order to survive.
“Depending on your situation, your socioeconomic background, your ethnicity—a whole bunch of different factors—people are forced to kind of disguise themselves and reveal themselves in different ways.”
However, he adds, theatre remains one of the few places where the mask can be dropped. Moreover, while theatre is ephemeral, Abeyratne maintains that it’s one of the most political artforms.
That’s because through theatre, it’s possible to move an entire audience in the same way—and elicit change within people—by having them pass through the same experience.
“We can just tell the truth—you know, the artistic truth through fiction,” Abeyratne says. “It’s one of the few places we can be real with one another. I think that’s why it’s so important.”
Pi Theatre presents the world premiere of Truth & Lies from Thursday (June 22) to Sunday (June 25) at the Martha Lou Henley Rehearsal Hall in the Vancouver Opera Production Centre (1955 McLean Drive). For more information and tickets, visit the Pi Theatre website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.