"I think teenage girls get a bad stereotype as being whiny and stupid and shallow," Meg McInerny calls out to Allie Russell, a redheaded teen perched unsurely on a darkened stage. “Your problems aren't trivial. They're real, they're important, they matter."
Whispers trickle in from the corner of the room — the peanut gallery is restive — as Russell contemplates her next move. She shoots a nervous smile at her friends, then breaks character: "But I still don't know what to do.” "Just stand there," McInerny urges. "Don't smile. Just breathe." Russell fights a grin, but slowly her physique relaxes and she moves into the scene.
The setting is the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, which will soon host facebook me, the next play in the Young Actors Theatre (YAT) Teenz Issues series, during this year's Fringe Festival. Russell is one of the ten teenage girls in the play's cast. They are using very little set, just two black boxes and a slew of laptops and cell phones as props.
McInerny is one of the founding members of The All Girl Company of Arts Effects NYC, a performing arts development company based in New York City. She's traveled to Indy with Katie Cappiello, the playwright of facebook me, to work with the YAT cast. McInerny is tall, strawberry blonde and freckled where Cappiello is shorter, with curly, dark brown hair. Both have a commanding presence.
While McInerny works with the girls onstage, Cappiello sits in the back with Catherine and Justin Wade, the brother-sister duo that runs YAT. Catherine is the director of facebook me and associate artistic director of YAT. Justin, the executive artistic director, has popped in to watch the process.
The origin story
YAT has been around since 1976. Catherine and Justin participated in the company when they were younger, then took it over in 2005, at a time when it was in serious need of fresh blood.
In the years prior to the Wades' arrival, students ranging from Kindergarten to 12th grade were lumped together in the same class, something of a one-room schoolhouse located in the former (and founding) director's basement. The Wades split up those age groups, creating three companies within the YAT framework: Youngsterz (grades K-2), Kidz (3-7) and Teenz (8-12).
YAT has seen a rise in membership since the Wades took over: 170 students studied in Spring 2012, compared to the approximately 50 students in 2004. Justin projects that 175 will study this fall, and YAT serves even more students through in-school programs.
Through their Teenz Issues series — created in 2009 and of which facebook me is a part — the Wades seek to "make teenagers and guardians aware of the warning signs and dangers of [a] specific issue,” according to a mission statement. The most recent play staged in the series was Dog Sees God, a polemic against homophobic bullying featuring grown-up Peanuts characters.
"I started doing teens issues plays because the youth of Indianapolis are dealing with the issues of bullying, violence, drug abuse, eating disorders, depression, and on and on every day," Justin says. "It is the perfect meeting grounds for young people to come from every side of town to the downtown area and watch their peers put on an entertaining show that sets up a community discussion afterwards."
facebook me was written in fall 2010, based on problems a group of girls from the All Girls Company were dealing with at the time.
"When we graduated from NYU, acting was exciting and fun, but we felt like there was so much more to theatre,” Capiello says. “We thought about when we were girls, preteens or teens, and how it would've been so cool to have a place, a creative place, where we could come together with a community of girls and just be really open and honest about our experiences. Theatre was the obvious forum in which to engage in conversations with peers, parents and the larger community”
When facebook me was first developed, it was in the middle of the rapid growth of the company. "The first day of class, when we were hearing about the girls' summers, hearing about what was going on with them, they had all these stories, as always, but we noticed something new, which was that everything was linking back to Facebook,” Cappiello says.
McInerny adds, "Everything. Fights with their parents, how many likes they got on a certain picture, the dynamics between their friends, everything. Everything was linked to Facebook for the first time. It's changing the rules. We looked at each other and thought: we have to capture this." Through overlapping dialogue, intertwining stories and projections from ever-present social media, facebook me does just that.
It tells the stories of ten different girls — in real time — for an hour of their lives on a Friday afternoon. "Everyone growing up has experienced a lot of the same issues, whether it's peer pressure, drama with your parents, friends, sex, drugs, all of that,” McInerny says. “We went through the same thing. But now, it's different because we have Facebook. So now there's a public platform and the choices you make are permanent."
The play first premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival. Pauline Moffat, executive director of IndyFringe, got in touch with McInerny and Cappiello and told them YAT was looking for a Teenz Issues play to present at this year's Fringe Festival.
Everything just clicked. "We love Justin and Catherine," Cappiello says, "Totally have a similar vibe." "And philosophy about theater and working with kids,” McInerny is quick to chime in. “So it's been great.”
When Cappiello and McInerny came to YAT, the girls in the cast had had only had six rehearsals, but it was obvious they'd been working on developing their roles on their own. Some in the cast are YAT veterans; others are part of the company for the first time.
Anna Rainkin, a soon-to-be-freshman at North Central, stressed how different doing a Teenz Issues play is from being in a YAT mainstage productions. "In the sessions, everybody who is in the session gets a part. And they're nice. It's Cinderella, or, like The Crucible. But facebook me is so much more modern. It's just... bad. Like, the language, what we're talking about, all of it."
Rainkin plays the role of Stella, a girl from a private high school whose picture is taken off of Facebook and put up on a website where guys rank girls by “how hot” they are. "Stella is the 'shockingly thin girl' who looks like she's anorexic, but she's not," Rainkin said, "She's basically exactly like me."
When Rainkin performs, the note that McInerny and Cappiello keep saying is, "Stop acting." "I'm worried about my lines," Rainkin tells them. "Then don't say them," Cappiello replies, "Seriously, I wrote all your lines. If you need to change them, change them."
During their time in Indy, Cappiello and McInerny teach acting theory and practice, as well as talk gender issues and the challenges that come with being female. They urge the girls, trading lines off each other, "Get rid of the distance between you and your character. You cannot vilify your character. You have to love her."
Embrace your boobs
Raine Miller is having a hard time relating to her character, Ava, who is above all other things, sexy. Ava knows she is sexy. Sometimes, like when creepy men catcall at her, she hates it, but other times, after a comment on a Facebook photo from a cute boy or while trying on bras, she embraces it.
For a 15-year-old actress, this could be a tough role to play, especially with directors, playwrights and peers looking on. But as Justin keeps saying, "That's theater!"
Miller says she feels as though she has little in common with Ava:: "She's the popular girl and she's so sexy, but I'm just really, really awkward." When pressed, she adds, "I think we're alike because we can both be really insecure sometimes.”
Cappiello and McInerny don't let Miller off the hook. "It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't thing," McInerny says. "It's way more socially acceptable to be self-deprecating than to embrace the fact that you do think you're sexy. Embrace your boobs," Cappiello adds.
It's tough to find that balance, on-stage and -off, for girls negotiating the world of sexuality in the age of Facebook, and the play captures that interplay between rewards and consequences while avoiding the dreck and inauthenticity of an after-school special. The play ends with two girls leaving a silly, happy video message for a friend locked in her room, a comfort only Facebook could have made possible.
After their Indy visit, Cappiello and McInerny headed off to Indonesia to workshop with another facebook me cast. They'll return in time to see YAT's facebook me perform at the IndyFringe Festival.