Pictured (L to R): Taylor Trensch and Jose Llana. Photograph by Daniel Rader.
BETWEEN THE LINES – POSTER BOY: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.
PART I: Poster Boy writer Joe Tracz, composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia, and director Stafford Arima were joined by WTF playwright-in-residence Harrison David Rivers to talk about the world premiere musical, Poster Boy.
[HARRISON DAVID RIVERS] The source material for Poster Boy is the very real and tragic event of a college freshman, Tyler Clementi, taking his life after being cyber-bullied by his roommate in 2010. Can you tell us about how you began the process of telling Tyler’s story on stage?
[JOE TRACZ] When I first read about Tyler, I was teaching a playwriting class at Kalamazoo College, where I went to school. I hadn’t been back to the college since graduation and I was struck by how much had changed, especially with regards to technology. For example, my first year of college was the first year students used computer instant messaging to talk to each other from dorm to dorm, and that felt very advanced at the time. I was teaching college freshmen who were the same age as Tyler, and after class one day I saw the first news story about him on my computer.
[CRAIG CARNELIA] When I read about the story, it jumped out at me as something I wanted to write. Tyler’s presence on a website called Just Us Boys was a particular element of the story that interested Joe and me. At our first meeting, Joe said: through the lens of this website we should tell Tyler’s story.
[JT] I didn’t know how to write it at first, knowing it was a true story and knowing how close it hit to home. But in reading the transcript of Tyler’s online conversations, I realized he had been a member of this website, Just Us Boys, since he was fourteen years old. The idea of a community of people on this website discovering that someone among them had taken their own life felt like a story I could tell. It was a story not just about a tragic suicide, but about how we all cope and survive in the wake of tragedy.
[STAFFORD ARIMA] I’ve always been very interested in exploring “the other,” or people who are “othered.” I read an early draft of Joe and Craig’s script, I couldn’t put it down. It was told in such an innovative and fresh way, through the point of view of fictional characters on Just Us Boys. In the end, it wasn’t a “bio-musical”- it was an investigation of dramatic awakenings. All of the characters go through a series of awakenings and, reading the script, I went through an awakening, as well.
[JT] When we were first writing it, we would meet every weekend at Craig’s place in New Jersey on a balcony that has a view of the George Washington Bridge – which is an important landmark for the story we are telling. Writing with that backdrop reminds you that you’re not just writing a piece of theatre — you’re writing something with real world resonance and with real world implications.
[HDR] The play is set in two places: a dorm room and online. For people who live a lot of their lives in those two settings, there can be a sense of safety in those spaces. But those spaces can be very easily violated, as well.
[JT] There is a shock when you are in a space that you think is safe, with people who you think are just like you, and then that space is violated. Even if it is just a violation of language, it is still a shock.
[SA] Too often, we think we are in a space with privacy and with security, but it turns out to be a false sense of security.
[CC] Most people think of the internet as safe because they reveal very intimate things on it. But the internet is not a safe space to reveal one’s secrets or vulnerabilities.
[JT] Yet, as we live more and more of our lives online, it’s imperative to find ways to grapple theatrically with the internet. It’s not easy to stage a show on the internet because the internet is anti-theatrical; theatre is about being in a real room with real people. Finding ways to make the internet theatrical is exciting to me: exploring this gap between the feeling of safety versus the feeling of freedom, between the feeling of being anonymous versus the feeling of your words living digitally forever.
[HDR] In Poster Boy, you have a responsibility to the truth, but you’re also telling a fictional side of the story with very diverse characters played by very diverse actors. In a story about a person who is marginalized for being different, this feels important.
[JT] In the show, everything that the characters of Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi, and their friends and family members say is real and taken from the public record, court documents, Facebook posts, or from other “digital breadcrumbs.” While all of Tyler’s posts on the Just Us Boys website are real, the responses to those real posts are fictionalized. Every fictional character in this play is a gay man on a website called Just Us Boys, but they all have different backgrounds and different points of view. They’re all coming to the story of Tyler through the lens of their own histories and experiences. As a result, we hope the audience gets to respond to the story based on who they are.
PART II: WTF literary assistant Sam French sat down with Angela Wu, Assistant Director of the Davis Center, a Williams College social justice and identity center, to talk about the vulnerabilities young people like Tyler face every day.
[SAMUEL FRENCH] Poster Boy deals with a young gay man who is cyber-bullied and “othered” within a community new to him, when he arrives at college. Sadly, this problem continues today for a lot of college students. What’s happening on contemporary campuses to help diverse students find their way in the life of their institutions?
[ANGEL WU] Colleges do a very good job of recruiting diverse students, but the work cannot end there. There’s this great metaphor: you can bring a lovely koi fish to your pond, but what if your pond doesn’t have all of the nutrients to sustain the fish? You can transplant a fish from one pond to another, but if that new pond isn’t built to support the fish, then are you really doing it any service? That is what we’re thinking about now: how do we create supportive environments for all the students who are here? What is the environment in their dorm rooms? What is the environment on their sports teams? What is the environment in pretty much every aspect of their campus life?
[SF] The internet can be a great place to find community, but it can also be very dangerous. As technology has developed, what changes have you seen in your students?
[AW] 2010 seems so different from 2016. In 2010, you could find support on the internet, but it was a different conversation than it is now. Because of websites like Tumblr, our students are coming in with a much stronger understanding of concepts like the intersectionality of identities. They are able to follow closely a lot of the major social movements that are happening across the country, such as Black Lives Matter, trans visibility, #OscarsSoWhite, or recent events such as the tragic shootings in Orlando, or just issues of representation in general.
[SF] Much of the conversation around the recent tragedy in Orlando has been about the violation of a safe space. Poster Boy was written and programmed at this Festival long before the tragedy in Orlando took place. Can you talk a bit more about the importance of safe spaces for people who feel marginalized, and for students who might feel like Tyler felt?
[AW] For people who come from backgrounds in which they are the majority, they simply might not know what being marginalized feels like. A very light example of what that might feel like is when people go to a foreign country and are surrounded by strangeness and by the feeling of alienation, and they just really want to go to McDonald’s so they can have something that they recognize from home. They need that sense of familiarity. For people who are othered regularly, a safe space can be a saving grace where they can be with other people who understand what it’s like to live their existence. It’s a place where people go to find solace, whether that takes place in an anonymous chatroom or a gay dance club in Orlando. So where do people find those pockets of solace? Where do people find those safe spaces?
[SF] Do you remember your personal reaction and experience around Tyler’s death?
[AW] I was glad to see that people were taking bullying seriously, but the way that bullying works is that it takes place in unseen ways that people can’t recognize. It’s done out of sight of authority figures, so how can authority figures help? They have to do a lot of educating, and then it takes a cultural shift. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for ending something like bullying, just like there is no silver bullet for eradicating racism or homophobia.
PART III: Jane Clementi, Tyler Clementi’s mother, was kind enough to offer the following thoughts for us to consider. We are all grateful to Jane and the entire Clementi Family for encouraging our development and world premiere production of Poster Boy.
Following Tyler’s death in 2010, The Tyler Clementi Foundation was formed. Can you tell us about the Foundation’s missions and goals?
[Jane Clementi]: Our mission is to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces and faith communities. Our goals include bringing an end to online harassment through legal support, research and advocacy, and by providing anti-bullying research, information and tools to parents and youth serving professionals
What can individuals do to help the Foundation and to prevent bullying in their own communities?
[JC]: To begin with, we encourage everyone to take the Upstander Pledge against bullying, and to share it with the children in their lives. We also urge all teachers, managers, and coaches to participate in the Day1 campaign. Students can “adopt” their school and ask their teachers and coaches to participate in it, as well. Finally, we always need volunteers, donors and people to share their stories at our website, TylerClementi.org.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our audiences about Tyler, the work of the Foundation or about Poster Boy?
[JC]: Bullying is a public health threat, not a rite of passage. We are leaving scars on young people, sometimes for life, by chalking this up to kids being kids.