Jennifer Haley did not set out to become the first major playwright of the digital age, but that is what has happened.
“The Nether,” which imagines a future where people lose themselves in a virtual world, will close a successful run Off-Broadway March 29th; the play has won for her all sorts of attention and awards, such as four Olivier Award nominations (including best new play) for the West End production, seven Ovation Awards (including playwriting) for the West Coast production, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Francesca Primus Prize, which she received this week at the ATCA conference in New Orleans. “The Nether” is just one of her plays to explore the blurring line between cyberreality and reality. An earlier play that debuted at the Humana Festival in 2008, “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom,” she describes as “a horror story about suburban video game addiction.” She is developing “Froggy,” about a woman who travels through a video-game universe looking for her boyfriend — which she calls a noir thriller inspired by graphic novels, and featuring interactive video design.
Haley’s own blurring line between two worlds — online and on stage – began inauspiciously. “I was working at a small theatre in Austin in the mid-90’s when I became aware of the Internet,” she told me. “I had a distant friend who was already getting into web design, and I actually remember thinking she was foolish for jumping onto a fad!”
Haley began writing plays in college. “I was a Liberal Arts and Drama major at the University of Texas at Austin, and was generally frustrated with the roles I was getting — the female roles didn’t seem half so interesting as the male roles — so I decided to write cool stuff for myself and my friends. I kept acting and writing for several years, then figured I’d rather be really good at one of them than pretty good at both. I chose writing because I still loved being on the generative end of the process.” She eventually studied playwriting with Paula Vogel at Brown’s MFA program. (“I went to graduate school with talent; I came out with talent plus craft.”)
Four years after first learning about the Internet, Haley was working in a theater in Seattle, “and I got to be a part of a program that trained artists and employees of arts non-profits in web design. I learned HTML and Photoshop, and continued working part time with the company while I built up my business as a freelance designer. That work was my bread and butter for thirteen years while I was trying to turn writing into a career.”
“There was no direct connection between becoming a web designer and a playwright. After years of doing both, they simply started to merge…”
She came up with the idea for “The Nether” in 2010, when she recalled one of the major lessons she learned from Paula Vogel five years earlier: “write what you hate.” Haley hated television police procedurals, so she imagined a detective interviewing a suspect who had committed crimes online. The crimes are pedophilia and child murder, but the crimes are virtual — the “child” is an avatar; the real person behind the man is a 65-year-old man. In the play, though, the child is meant to be portrayed by a child actress. “I spent a month trying to decide if I should rewrite that part,” she told the critics in New Orleans. She understood that it was shocking, even though the young actress does nothing more graphic than lift up her dress over her head (the dress is just the outer layer of a multi-layered Victorian garment.) Haley decided to keep it as is — “Having a child in the play made the play warmer” — and she was surprised and gratified that “people are willing to produce it, people willing to watch it, and people willing to talk about it.
“The hardest thing to learn is that a piece of work usually takes its own time. But the Nether was a quickie; from the time I started it to the time it was produced was three years.”
“The Nether,” which premiered at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013, is slated for yet another production at the Wooly Mammoth in D.C. in April, 2016.
She doesn’t want her plays to be seen as anti-tech, but rather as explorations about how we use technology to “play out our own neuroses.” As she has said, “the danger lies in spending so much time online that you neglect having a life and relationships in the real world.”