—Originally published November 21, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “The Grumpiest Boy in the World,” Purple Crayon Players’ north-American premiere of Finegan Kruckemeyer’s TYA play. Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
Dania was clapping wild and loud as the lights faded up on the curtain call for the show. Eleanor was smiling and applauding as well, but not nearly as fervently as Dania, who was cheering with all the energy that the children in the audience likely had, but were advised not to voice in so many decibels, by their parents. Through the calamitous applause, Eleanor thought she could make out the telltale melody of “Go, Cubs, Go!” playing the actors off. As the house lights rose, Dania was still laughing.
“Oh, I needed that,” Dania said. “I needed that.”
“We all did,” Eleanor said. The girls collected their coats and headed out into the ever-darkening 3:30pm sky.
“It’s just nice to get something fun and upbeat on campus every now and then,” Dania said. “So many of the plays here are so dry, and serious. This is my kind of work.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Gwen said, tucking a scarf into her coat. “We’re not going to see much more of that in the wake of the election.”
“Oh, Gwen,” Eleanor said, rolling her eyes. “Purple Crayon’s not going to start wheeling out extremely political theatre now. They’re still going to do what they do best.”
“Keep in mind, they already started doing more serious work last year. With that staged reading in May, and…”
“Can we focus on the show we just saw?” Dania asked. “Everyone’s talking about the election and I just want to talk about Zachary and his Giant friend.”
“I loved the Giant!” Eleanor said. “That clock tower song moment hit me right in the feels.”
“Right in the feels!” Dania agreed. “He was so funny, I loved him. And the Grump-Off dance number? I was howling it was so good.”
“Who was the other Grumpy dancer besides the two scientists? She played the mom?” asked Eleanor.
“I don’t know, I don’t remember her face,” Dania said, turning to Gwen. “Gwen, do you…Gwen?”
Gwen was walking slower, her face pointed towards the ground. She didn’t look sad – or at least Dania didn’t think so – but she was clearly lost in thought and hadn’t been paying attention.
“Gwen!” Dania said. “Who was the girl who played the mom in the show? Is she new?”
“What?” said Gwen. After processing the question, she responded, “Oh, yes. That’s Makaa Copeland. She’s a Class of 2020, she’s new.”
“Well, she was really good,” Dania continued. “She and the dad – which one was that?”
“Mat Benson, also new,” added Gwen.
“They were great in that scene when they were looking over Zachary’s drawing. Where they’re like…”
“‘The use of asymmetry in the sideways trees!’” quoted Eleanor.
“I mean, that’s how all children’s art should be judged. Right?” Dania said.
“Of course, of course,” Eleanor agreed.
“And the scientists, the, um…” Dania fished out her program. “I’ve seen them before. Stefan Schallack and Marissa Ferrara. They were such nice narrators for that whole opening song about Zachary’s life and such. It’s a very nice musical.”
“I didn’t know that Purple Crayon did musicals,” Eleanor said.
“It’s billed as a play with music,” Gwen corrected.
“I mean,” Dania said, rolling her eyes. “It is kind of a musical. They sing a lot of it.”
“Maybe. Whatever it is, I certainly enjoyed it,” Eleanor said. “There are so many little moments that are just…pleasant. That’s the word, pleasant.”
“Or sweet,” Dania added. “It’s such an innocent, simple story. With the tree in the middle and the hand puppets and the super-quick costume changes.”
“I will say,” Gwen chimed in, “there were moments where my enjoyment almost came more from watching them put the show together than it was from the actual story they were telling.”
“Some metatheatre, yeah,” Eleanor said.
“But you still liked it overall, right?” Dania asked.
“Yes, I did…” Gwen said, her tone bending upwards as the statement finished.
“That sounded like it had an ellipsis at the end,” Eleanor said. “You have more thoughts on it?”
“It’s just…” Gwen said. She looked to her friends, but barely saw them through the haze of thoughts and emotions running through her head.
“What’s up?” Dania said, stopping and turning towards Gwen.
“I’m not sure, I guess…” Gwen began, before looking up into the trees. “I enjoyed it a lot, and I thought it was actually really good and all, and Julianne Lang, it turns out, is a really astute director. But I’m torn about, I don’t know…” Gwen trailed off again. She looked again at her friends, and this time saw Dania. “You said this is what you needed right now?”
“I mean, yeah,” Dania said, her cheeks rising into a smile. “It’s Week 8, politics are everywhere, and I needed somewhere I could escape for an hour.”
“That’s what I mean,” Gwen said, finally finding her footing in her own argument. “Is escapism what we really need right now?”
“Well,” Eleanor said. She had been discussing the election results with friends for the past week, but hadn’t talked at length with Gwen yet, or any of her white friends. But now, she supposed, the time had come. “That might depend on who you mean by ‘we?’”
“I’ve been going back and forth,” Gwen said, “between wanting to discuss it all the time and wanting to keep quiet about it. I think that not talking about it just normalizes everything, but talking about it all the time is rough.”
“I get that,” Eleanor said. “I mean, you don’t have to discuss it all the time. You just have to not forget about it, and keep it in mind.”
“But doesn’t this show do the opposite?” Gwen argued.
The girls fell silent for a moment. Dania thought hard about Gwen’s proposition. Having been a longtime fan of theatre for entertainment’s sake, the ensuing discussions around the use of art after the election – she had overheard Gwen talking with other theatre friends in their apartment – led her to wonder what the next four years might hold for her. Would it be an interminable series of performance art pieces, of nail-on-head allegories, of calls for diversity made by hand-wringing white artists? Where would there be…would there be?…a place for The Grumpiest Boy? A show with a non-white protagonist played effortlessly and faithfully by Michelle Kim? Surely no political situation could dim the enjoyment of watching Zachary, swept away by the river, pine after his lost granola bar.
“Well, this show doesn’t necessarily talk about political matters,” Eleanor began. “But it doesn’t have to. Remember, the age range for this show is for little, little kids.”
“But…I don’t know…I do feel that people need the show right now. I certainly did.”
“Look,” Dania said, taking control of the conversation. “This election terrifies me. Like, truly. I don’t know where I’m going to live after graduation. My visa only lasts until March 2018.”
Gwen’s eyes fell to the ground. Eleanor’s stayed on Dania.
“I’m going to fight this with all the energy that I have. And I’m going to encourage you both to do so as well. But while that’s happening, I need – ”
At this Dania waited until Gwen’s head rose up again to meet hers.
“I need this show. Now that every single thing about my life is about to be political, more so than normal, I need an escape from that.”
The girls stood still for a moment. Each felt awkward about the conversation just passed. But no one wanted to speak first.
Finally, after realizing that the moment was garnering a significance that was probably going to taint her friends opinion of the performance, Gwen quietly added, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Dania said. “You’re always apologizing.”
“True,” Gwen admitted.
“But hey,” Eleanor said, attempting to spin the conversation back towards its correct subject matter. “We all liked the show, right? Gwen, you still said you liked it?”
“I did. Yes, I did.”
“So it’s clearly doing something right,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, definitely,” Gwen said. “Regardless of my questions about its political, or it’s lack of political leanings, it’s still an excellently put-together production. Would recommend.”
“You know what I want?” Dania said, smiling again. “Light-up shoes.”
“Oh my God, those were awesome,” Eleanor exclaimed.
“That was a really clever trick,” Gwen said. “Didn’t see it coming, and seeing the lights bouncing around just before curtain call was really cute.”
“Do you know the costume designer?” Dania asked Gwen.
“I do. I’ll ask her where they got those,” Gwen said. “Although, I bet they might have built it themselves.”
“Such a tiny detail,” Eleanor said. “But it’s just so cool to see.”
“Yes, I was thinking it wasn’t really a plot point or anything,” Gwen said. “But it was certainly a nice addition.”
Gwen snickered, briefly, then added, “I suppose that’s the show, generally.”
“What’s the show?” asked Dania.
“Not a plot point, or not something that’s going to change the world,” Gwen explained. “But still good – very good – regardless.”
“Hey, if it taught the children that they should embrace what makes them feel included, even if they think they’re uninteresting, and also made a room of college students laugh at the same time, how can you call that unsuccessful?” asked Eleanor.
Dania laughed. “Well, it was certainly one of my favorites I’ve seen. Shame that this is one of the groups only doing two shows this year.”
“Hm. You’ll just have to console yourself with Griffin’s Tale in the meantime,” Eleanor said, sending Dania into another blithe fit of laughter. Seeing their friend laughing, Eleanor and Gwen laughed softly along with her.