Stanford TAPS’s play ‘Cerulean’ explores vulnerability and human connection in a society reliant on technology

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Written and performed by 10 Stanford undergraduate students who are part of the Stanford Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) Summer Theater program, the virtual play “Cerulean” brought the sorely missed performing arts back into our lives for two hours. The performers wrote and rehearsed the production remotely for eight weeks, their hard work culminating in three shows from Aug. 6-8, all free of charge, performed over Zoom and broadcasted live on YouTube.

Directed by Kari Barclay, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in theater and performance studies, “Cerulean” touches on vulnerability, recovery and finding balance in an online world that can foster connections yet destroy authenticity. The show’s premise centers on a new technological innovation, Cerulean, that is worn as a bracelet and can detect users’ emotions and identify them as colors, and then link users who are simultaneously experiencing the same feelings.

The play follows the interconnected relationships and individual struggles of three characters — Vivian, Miguel and Rita — along their journeys to healing and closure. Through various video calls, virtual group therapy sessions, remote meetings and text messages, we are introduced to the complex lives and hardships of every character. Vivian, the founder of Cerulean, must deal with her mother’s death due to cancer; Miguel grapples with the tragic death of his close friend; and Rita lives an uninspired life as she tries to heal the wounds from her childhood.

“Oftentimes, we think of technology as a barrier to human connection and how it expands and maintains our network but also leads to a lot of falsehoods, especially on social media. With creating our profiles, we get to present ourselves in a way that we want to be presented, so it creates a barrier to vulnerability,” said Mai Lan Nguyen ’22, who played Vivian. “We were exploring what forming connections over technology might look like … so the synopsis is kind of paradoxical because it’s about disconnecting from technology itself but also [using it to] connect with people.”

Vivian creates Cerulean while seeking empathy amid lonely grief. With few close relationships except with her cousin Rita, and her mother’s impending death from cancer, Vivian hopes Cerulean will be the key to unlocking vulnerability in people and cultivating authentic, honest bonds.

“Connection is something we all crave, and it’s actually something we all deserve. … Can technology connect us on a meaningful, truthful level?” she asks in an advertisement for Cerulean. “Cerulean lets us be vulnerable together.”

This concept of vulnerability continues to be discussed throughout the show, raising questions about the extent to which vulnerability is necessary, while examining the often laborious journey it takes to reach that stage in grief. Miguel’s journey to vulnerability particularly stands out. Mourning the loss of his friend, Miguel is initially closed off at his group therapy meetings, unable to accept his feelings or experiences. But Cerulean ultimately enables him, even forces him, to come to terms with his emotions.

“A frustrating customer service call to Cerulean turns serendipitous as Miguel later finds friendship in the customer service rep, Rita, with similar underlying feelings of grief and anxiety,” explained Marlon Washington II ’22, who portrayed Miguel. “Miguel evolves from being extremely reticent about his experiences to speaking on the complexity of emotions with aplomb in his final scene,” which is, once again, at his group therapy meeting, bringing his story full circle.

The final group therapy meeting provides closure for not only Miguel but also for Vivian. Though Vivian created Cerulean to encourage vulnerability — believing it was “a checkpoint before you get to connection,” according to Nguyen — the character ultimately realizes that vulnerability isn’t a requirement when recovering from grief and tragedy.

“We juggled with the idea of needing consent from the person to be vulnerable … It’s your decision and your right to control the level of vulnerability that you explore or give out to the world,” said Nguyen. “[Vivian] takes off her bracelet at the end because she understands that her way of thinking about emotions and connection and vulnerability has been simplistic. It’s more complex than that.”

Miguel’s newfound friend, Rita, is struggling to find herself between a desire to pursue her passion for writing and her father’s desire for her to obtain a more stable job in the tech industry. At the same time, she is faced with trauma from an abusive mother whom she was left with after her father abandoned her as a child. Begrudgingly taking on the dreary customer service job for Cerulean, Rita attempts to ignore her discontentment with her life. Her automatic connection with Miguel, facilitated by Cerulean, compels Rita to face her emotions and rethink her career and passions, along with her relationship with her father.

Barclay said that “Cerulean” explores how Rita “moves to forgive her father and recognize that he also went through some challenging things. It’s a journey of forgiveness. It’s a journey of healing, just like the journey that Miguel takes. … It’s a play about healing, in a lot of ways.”

Cerulean is, indeed, a play about healing, specifically from grief. In the play, a shade of deep blue represents sorrow on the bracelet. It’s an emotional shade that Miguel, Vivian and Rita all experience, and it’s one that any other human being will experience in their lifetime. Yet, in the tech industry, where happiness equates to clicks which equate to profit, there is apparently no room or time for sorrow, a long and arduous process. Consequently, Cerulean’s board members pressure Vivian to remove deep blue as a color, essentially suggesting grief can and should be ignored.

Vivian, mourning the recent death of her mother, fights back against this decision, exclaiming, “Grieving is a real experience. It’s the core of vulnerability. It’s complex and difficult, but sometimes it’s the only thing you have left. It’s the only thing you can hold on to.” Nguyen explained, “[Vivian] was struggling with the ethics of … tailoring people’s emotions — getting rid of something that they might actually feel, but displaying something completely different. It goes into the realms of manipulation.”

In this way, “Cerulean” appreciates and recognizes the grieving process as a natural, necessary part of life while acknowledging flaws in the tech industry that may prevent genuine human connection. “The tech culture — if it’s entirely built around capitalism, it makes the internet undemocratic. How can we, as people, have more say in the technologies that we’re using?” asked Barclay. “That is what we were getting at.”

As society continues to grapple with the ramifications of a global pandemic, “Cerulean” is particularly relevant to today’s issues, not only because it touches on emotions that are undoubtedly being felt around the world right now, but also because it ponders whether technology can connect humans in a meaningful way. Today, people separated by various distances are forced to communicate virtually, and the capability of technology is seriously being put to the test.

Interestingly, those working on “Cerulean” had to test it out themselves. Using advanced software such as OBS that enabled them to broadcast media from multiple sources, the performers were able to expand the capacities of Zoom by broadcasting creative backgrounds and overlays, giving the impression of a diversified setting. Spending hours of screen time to perfect these tricky and unconventional techniques, they successfully put on a touching production through unprecedented means. 

Barclay said, “I started the play in a very pessimistic place about technology, but the fantastic thing was I was working with these nine actors over the summer, and we formed a genuine, real community over the internet. I’ve never been in the same room as some of these people, and yet I feel that I know them.”

Similarly, Washington said the process “was a refreshing start and assessment of the times: We created a constellation of characters with rich emotional lives to stage. … As performers, we juggled responsibilities of videography, sound-mixing and acting live. As collaborators, we triumphed over distance and a short timeline.”

“Cerulean” seeks not to answer philosophical questions about vulnerability or morality, but to simply raise these questions, sparking thought and discussion. The eight-week process of devising the play and bringing to life relatable characters, along with their raw emotions, provided an opportunity for TAPS students to attempt to find an answer to some of those questions themselves. Amid a troubling time of widespread loneliness, grief and a certain detachment from community, “Cerulean” is a heartwarming, thought-provoking show that serves as both a memento of the present and a bridge to a more hopeful future.

Contact Yejin Song at 22yejins ‘at’ students.harker.org.

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Yejin Song is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.