If you're unfamiliar with teenage text-speak, don't be offended by out Chicago playwright Sarah Gubbins when she explains the meaning of the title to her world premiere play fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life.
"'fml' is text lingo for 'fuck my life,' and so we wanted to keep the lowercase and make the title look almost like a text message," Gubbins said about her commission for Steppenwolf for Young Adults. The production is a companion piece to Steppenwolf's earlier stage adaptation of author McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter from earlier this season, and how the teaching of that same novel has an impact on characters within Gubbins' drama.
Gubbins already made a splash earlier this theater season with About Face Theatre's production of her lesbian pregnancy drama, The Kid Thing, at Chicago Dramatists. But now Gubbins turns her attention to the much-in-the-news issue of school bullying with fml.
"The title of the play is the title of the graphic novel that we see get constructed," Gubbins said about her teenage lesbian protagonist, Jo ( played by Fiona Roberts ) , who gets inspired to create in part by reading McCullers' novel as part of a school assignment. "The content of the graphic novel is one teenage girl's journey toward writing that graphic novel, so it's a little bit of a Russian nesting doll going on with the plot."
McCullers' novel comes at a pivotal moment for Jo, who finds a kindred artistic spirit in the author's writing to help "expunge and alleviate some of her loneliness." Although the novel features many characters, there's one that Gubbins said is probably a stand-in for McCullers herself that expresses her conflicted feelings about her sexuality and her drive to create things artistically.
"For me it's very easy when you read [ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ] as a teenager to really identify," Gubbins said.
Jo also has a passionate English teacher in Ms. Delaney ( Lily Mojekwu ) and the school's only other openly gay student named Mickey ( Ian Daniel McLaren ) , who also helps her out in expressing herself in high school.
" [ Mickey ] kind of has a role as Jo's culture guru, I guess," said McLaren, adding that the high school in Gubbins' play does not have a gay-straight alliance to offer support for the gay characters. "If I were to project 20 years into Mickey's future, I would see him as a hotshot editor agent or someone who really likes to encourage other people to find the best they have to offer artistically."
So, in many ways, Gubbins' fml stresses the importance of having helpful teachers, friends and artistic works for gay youth to survive high school, especially when bullying is involved.
"I think Sarah has done a really nice job kind of exploring what is a very specific incidence of bullying and the culture today," McLaren said. "But also it's not a sob story or an indictment of any one group in particular. It's more about exploring the ways in which everyone, but specifically youth, are bullying and hateful toward each other."
Despite the efforts of sex advice columnist Dan Savage and his much-publicized "It Gets Better Project" reaching out to gay youth, it's still saddening to hear news reports of gay teenagers who are still taking their lives.
"I've never worked on a play that felt more timely," Gubbins said. "It's hard when you're told that it gets better. The problem is that it's very, very bad for a while and you know sometimes students feel that they're just not strong enough to wait it out."
Both Gubbins and McLaren are excited to see the full realization of fml under the direction of Joanie Schultzparticularly the graphic novel that comes to life onstage thanks to the work of set designer David Hyman and projection designer Mike Tutaj. But more importantly, Gubbins and McLaren are looking forward to getting fml in front of school audiences.
"I'm very excited about the schools that are coming to see the production. They will be in direct dialogue with us, the artistic team and Steppenwolf teaching artists, some of whom will be going into schools in advance to talk about the play and then facilitate conversations afterwards," Gubbins said. "Also it was very important to me that that students who are out and gay have a representation onstagethat they're seen as legitimate characters."
Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life plays in Steppenwolf Theatre's Downstairs space, 1650 N. Halsted St., through March 18. Weekday matinee performances are for school groups only, but public performances are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays ( except March 3 ) and 3 p.m. Sundays ( except. March 11 ) . Tickets are $20 and 2-for-1 on Sundays. $15 student tickets are only available via phone or box office. A special post-show discussion with sex advice columnist Dan Savage ( co-creator of the It Gets Better Project ) and his brother, Northwestern University professor Bill Savage, is scheduled to follow a special 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday, March 9. Call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org .