Seasonal Anxieties of the Third (fifth?) Kind

When I first saw the full line-up for the Mustard Seed Theatre season that my play would be a part of, I felt a bit like the odd girl out. There was “Human Terrain”, about the relationship between a U.S. Cultural Advisor and an Iraqi woman during the Iraq War, then “All Is Calm” about the Christmas truce of 1914 during WW1, followed by “White To Gray,” a tragic cross-cultural romance in the shadow of Pearl Harbor and the opening days of WW2. And then there was me and my very silly play about online dilettantes in gravity-defying dresses who talk funny. Cue the song from Sesame Street – “one of these things is not like the other…” But as the months have gone by, and I’ve had the chance to see each production, I’ve started to think my play may not be as out of place as I had expected it to be.

A glance at the poster and synopsis for An Invitation Out makes it fairly clear that I wrote it with modern technology on my mind, but may be a little less clear about what was in my heart. I conceived and wrote the first two drafts of the play at a pivotal time in my life, when I was finally coming to terms with being transgender and what that meant for my future while simultaneously wrestling with the legacy of my strict Pentecostal Christian upbringing. It was a period marked by long stretches of feeling like a stranger in a strange land pretty much everywhere I went. And in a way, the online/offline worlds of the play became a way for me to discuss the experience of venturing outside of a world-view you’ve grown comfortable with, and the rewards and consequences that come with such a step. A technological setting seemed a perfect way to examine it, too, because the internet has given us open access to all sorts of new conversations while also giving us the tools to be more closed off from other voices than ever before. Social media algorithms learn how to give us the news sources we like; the confines of post, comment, and tweet lengths make our arguments more brittle and two dimensional; and we can barricade ourselves away from views we don’t like with a simple click of the “unfriend” button. So you can imagine my relief when each of the plays before mine this season turned out to be about people reaching across cultural and ideological divides in order to connect with another human being. At its core, that’s what An Invitation Out is about too. And just like that, I didn’t feel like such a stranger after all. There were four of us, all from very different places, asking the same question. Although I’m pretty sure my version of the question still has the most jokes about blogging, greased ferrets, and sentient computer programs named Astrid. Which is probably for the best.

That question, and this answer

As the first production of An Invitation Out creeps closer and closer, one question has been making frequent appearances in the many conversations where I can’t shut up about my play – “So how’d you come up with the idea for this?” And I usually answer with something short and tag line-ish to avoid going into the long-winded, embarrassing truth that the origins of this show extend all the way back my gawky teenage years in the quiet mountain town of Paradise, California (yes, the name is mostly ironic). One of the first leading roles I ever got in my high school drama department was in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. And yes, it’s one of those plays that gets performed so often (and usually rather badly) that many theatre folk roll their eyes at the very mention of it. But coming to it fresh was electrifying. I was immediately intoxicated by the language, the wit, the plot’s effortless combination of intelligence and utter silliness. The style of it very quickly clamped onto my fancy, and never let go. My high school drama program was pretty amazing, looking back, and in my freshman and sophomore years, I’d already been exposed to Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, and Jean Giraudoux. Wilde was the fourth and final nail in the “maybe I want to be a playwright” coffin, and I was done. The year that I performed in Earnest was also the year that I wrote my first play.

Flash forward more years than I’m comfortable admitting to, and we arrive at the heyday of Facebook and Twitter. As countless posts skittered across my computer screen, I started to notice a trend – a sizable number of the things getting “liked” or shared around were quick, two or three sentence attempts at humor or cleverness, a form that Oscar Wilde made his public reputation from. “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much” “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” “The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.” Seriously, Oscar Wilde would have OWNED Twitter. 21st century social media had found a new stage for the witty epigram, had in fact turned the internet into one gigantic Victorian dinner party with everyone rushing to come up with the best zinger of the night. All of the sudden, the archaic 19th century drawing room comedies I’d been obsessed with since high school felt more immediate than ever, and seemed a natural form to use to explore an online world of clever dandyism gone mad. The idea was a simple one: I would write a Wildean drawing room comedy, but in a chat room instead. From there, the story gushed out very quickly, a look at the future inspired by the past that would hopefully shed some light on the present. So there you have it, how I came up with this. And now, if we happen to bump into each other, you’ll already know the answer to your question, and won’t be subjected to me rambling on about high school theatre productions and long-dead playwrights, and we can both share a perfectly lovely sigh of relief.