Last fall semester, I took my Introduction to Playwriting Class for my Theatre Arts major track. For someone who had called herself a playwright since sophomore year of high school but hadn’t really written many plays at all to fit the title, I was super jazzed to take this class. No matter how I ended up feeling about the craft, what I learned, or the class experience itself, I knew I was going to be walking out of that course with a fully-written One Act in tow. Forty full pages of stage directions and dialogue, with any amount of revisions, because it’s how you pass the class.
Fast forward through the class, the whole semester, and even a couple months into the next one: I’m still working on this play. It’s got my sapphic heart on fire, and it’s one of the first times I’ve been able to put what I love into action on the page and on the stage.
Around the time we began talking about the Ten Minute Play assignment, which preceded the One Act, my class was having our routine conversation about what was in the news. Something about data-mining came up — I think it was specifically about how Target.com was able to tell how someone was pregnant from what they were purchasing, and they could push ads that would appeal to expecting individuals. The gears in my head started turning, from fear and from intrigue. Okay, so websites know who we are. To an extent, so do machines. What would happen if a machine knew something about someone that the person wasn’t necessarily ready to reveal to anyone or anything?
I had been jonesing to work on a piece that had to do with technology: I had been listening to Janelle Monáe nonstop and the artist’s constant melding of tech, social issues, and identity. I was still reeling from the small amount of Black Mirror episodes I had watched the year before, and how the series talks about what societal development really means for the members of society. I had been leaning more and more into the comedic genre, too; watching SNL skits had become my go-to winding down activity during those weeks of long rehearsals and endless homework. I was thinking: let’s make something punchy, timely, a little bit scary. Let’s make it gay, too, because what else would I do.
I started working on a ten minute play called Digital Sapphism (which was a random title I had sitting in my Evernote documents for a couple weeks). It was about a high school senior named Elise (which was totally inspired by the first name of the WLW singer Fletcher, whose EP I listened to on repeat as I wrote this play. Nothing else.) Her new Amazon Alexa clues into the fact that she needs massive help sussing out if her crush Stella was queer or not. By switching on Amazon Ally Mode, she could do analyses of Stella’s digital sapphism present on her social media. You know — how many times her shirt was a button up, and/or had patterns. How many times she posted about the USWNT. “Totally foolproof” ways one could pin down the sapphism of another, at least according to us sapphics (most of the time, but not all.)
I knew there was more to this play than the ten minutes of stage time I had given it during the obligatory in-class workshop. I was excited by the ways in which I could keep the ways I simultaneously poked fun at and acknowledged the investigative work queer womxn feel compelled to do, and also imagine futures in which identity becomes less connected to how we flag ourselves and nothing else. I was psyched by how I made myself laugh out loud writing this play. Also, having a machine like Alexa as a literal character in my play meant the possibilities of what could happen with her were almost endless. The One Act Assignment was the place to explore all of these hunches.
The piece went from sketch comedy, to funny-creepy, to a funny-creepy short play that has never really lost its sketchy identity spirit. It became about surveillance capitalism, it became about coming out, it became about honesty, it became about affirming one’s queerness and expression of it despite the ways in which it is commodified and organized by the corporations trying to profit off of queer style and culture.
While writing the play, I went full speed ahead into every sapphic stereotype I could assemble, to build Elise and Stella’s lives. I wanted to create a living Instagram feed of the sapphic content I leaned on to laugh with and relate to. I amped up Alexa’s creepiness and Elise’s courage to stand up to her. When it came to the love story, I wanted to give these two characters a victory. I just wanted to make something that would be special to a sapphic audience, and would speak to us about the frustrations but also the joys of being who we are.
It was a challenge to write forty pages of this play, especially because of my mental health over the course of the semester, as I was grieving, missing home, and dealing with a whole host of other conflicts. I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I made it happen, and the play I had written gave me so much joy. I was able to put everything I had been feeling about sapphic culture at the time into beats and transitions.
Playwrights at my school get some special chances to show their work onstage. I signed up to have a staged reading of Digital Sapphism in the spring semester, and I also submitted the play for the playwriting competition that would also entitle me to another reading with pro actors, dramaturgical support, and a cash prize.
It came time for the casual reading, and I was lucky enough to land a cast of all sapphic individuals. We had a read-through of the script, and I got to hear my work read by a real cast out loud. We could have just stopped the process right there, because my dreams came true in that room. The way they laughed at and related to the story, even at parts I didn’t even realize had much weight, made me feel like I had truly created something special. The rehearsal process for these department readings were only supposed to take place for two days but I wish they ran for longer, because I loved being in that room with these people who expressed appreciation for the work.
At the reading, I dressed up in a black and pink outfit with my dark red Docs. (My director matched shoes. We didn’t plan this, it just happens like this.) The audience was made up of friends as well as the students for the spring playwriting class. And the way they responded with their laughter filled my heart up too. I will never forget sitting there and thinking “I really made theatre.” There was a brief talkback with the audience where I gleaned the idea that the next place for the play to go was to lean even farther into the idea of what it means to de-commodify queerness.
Before the reading, my playwriting professor told me she had something to tell me once it was done. And I had a feeling in my heart that it had something to do with the playwriting award. Turns out I was right — the news would come out in the next couple days, but she wanted to tell me that she heard from the committee. I felt so lucky to have another chance to see the play onstage once it’s grown again.
But, about that reading. It’s most likely not happening because of my school closure due to the coronavirus and social distancing measures. If I’m being real, I’d rather us take the precautions we have taken than push it for the sake of this one reading. I can always look back to the reading we had with the cast I loved dearly. I’m so satisfied with the ways in which writing this play and dealing with these themes has changed a lot about me, in the best ways. I’ve begun to look at my own expression in terms of being about what I truly love, and not about fitting into any ideas of how I “should” be. I’m also a lot more cautious about what information I give websites…call me a boomer, but hey, in the spirit of the message of my play, we all contain multitudes. I’ve also grown in confidence, knowing that I finally wrote a play that I can call both mine and part of those who have been generous enough to give attention to it and advice for its growth.
I am getting all of my ducks in a row for registration for the fall semester of my junior year, and I’m super jazzed to say the Advanced Playwriting course is going to be a part of my Wednesday and Friday mornings (it is one of the only things I would wake up on a Friday morning for!) I hope to report back soon about Digital Sapphism — maybe we’ll get some sort of reading up in the coming months. I’m okay with being in this place now, though, the laughter of my sapphic friends ringing into my ears.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.