“What’s up? I punched the principal in the face.”
Sean Kenny ’20 began to recite the line of his character, Sam. Every third word or so, Kenny twitched. “I punched him in the face, called him a psychopathic perverted…” The actor broke from his character. He stumbled. “This is so uncomfortable,” Kenny said, speaking as himself. “The good thing about this show is that nervous ticks are welcome.” The ticks, twitches, and jerks that came from his thin frame were part of his acting, but an unaware audience member could mistake them for something real.Kenny’s struggle to say that “psychopathic perverted” line, which was laced with twelve curse words in two sentences, seemed to fit within an overarching narrative that ran throughout the rehearsals of Conform in the first-floor rehearsal hall of the Trexler Pavilion.
Joe McNaney, the playwright of Conform, is the visionary of the production, and he too struggled with the show. “When I began writing Conform it was going to be a coming of age story about a kid like me,” said McNaney, a Muhlenberg alum who currently resides in Chicago. “That was boring.” Striving for better than boring forced McNaney to ask himself challenging questions like: Why should people watch or read this play? How do I find a conclusion? How do I make the occurrences in this production as accurate as possible?
To answer those questions McNaney found the inspiration for Conform deeply rooted within challenges from his own childhood. “I involved Tourette Syndrome, a disability I had when I was younger.” McNaney explained. The show tiptoes between many boundaries and comfort zones as a piece about a 14-year-old coming of age while battling Tourette Syndrome. Scenes include Sam being raised in a household with a single mother, academic struggles, and peer pressure.
During rehearsals, actors practiced scenes where Sam goes on a profanity laced tirade against his mother who is trying to calm and console her son. Kenny and Camille Seidel ’18, who plays Sam’s mom, went over the same scene until they were literally too tired to keep pretending to fight each other. And while the actors struggled to find the energy to continue the crew had to not only be concerned with their own safety and energy, but also make sure the lines sounded natural. Because of circumstances and situations like the ones above, there were scenes that had to be tweaked, reconstructed, and completely scrapped throughout the writing process.
“I tried to make it more personal by highlighting the language boys use without knowing what it means, just because that is what boys older than them do,” said McNaney. One particular challenge in the play was the usage of the word fag. The use the word is offensive, but to avoid using it is inauthentic to the character who, as a young teen, might hear it quite often. “I had to make sure I didn’t fall into the trap of just saying ‘fag’ because it was the easy choice,” explained McNaney. “Each time, and there were many, I weighed it against alternatives and realized these 14-year-old boys don’t think before they talk all the time. I just attempted to write in that voice as best I could.”
Many of Conform’s cast have appreciated the hard work and meticulous detail which has gone into the show, and McNaney’s character’s voice lends authenticity. “Joe’s writing style is absolutely hilarious,” said Irene Martinko ‘18, Conform’s director. “He’s both honest and has the ability to play with language in a really satisfying way. I love the way that he’s written this play because it’s this mash-up of genres and over-the-top jokes, but it’s also got a lot of depth to it.“
Martinko admits that the play has some portions that were hard to pull off for the actors and staff. “Beyond the fact that the main character has to appear as if he has Tourette Syndrome, there are also seven different instances requiring stage combat, quick changes every single scene, a musical number with singing and dancing, and a huge amount of harsh language,” Martinko said. All of these factors made her nervous to take on the project. But, with time, McNaney’s vision became less daunting. “We’re all pretty desensitized to the language, and we’ve reached a point where the goal is to be as true to Joe’s story as possible rather than worry about what the audience is going to think.”
As a playwright, McNaney was not involved in casting, but when he found out who would be playing the roles of his carefully constructed characters he was thrilled. “I am impressed with their talent and ability to go from super goofy to real serious really quickly,” explained McNaney, emphasizing skills that were essential for the roles needing to be filled.
McNaney also acknowledged that finding the right person to act in a role of a someone with a disability is as critical as writing their lines correctly, and he mentioned how impressed he was with Kenny specifically. “Sean took on a big role playing someone with a disability and has worked very hard. It shows.”
Brett Mathews ‘19, the stage manager for Conform wanted to make sure McNaney’s vision is exactly what the audience sees from the show, and acknowledges he worried that Conform would be mistaken for a show that an audience would struggle connecting with because of the scenes involving fighting and explicit language. But he was pleased with the casts’ progress. “Everything in this play has a degree of “crossing the line” when taken out of context and missing the point of the show,” said Mathews. “It is quite a challenge to make sure the right message comes out, which falls upon Irene and I.”
A lot of the challenges Conform has brought the playwright and staff have been ironed out because of the flexibility of the show’s cast and crew. Martinko praised McNaney for not being too rigid when ideas to change the original script were brought up. “Joe’s actually been great about edits because of his flexibility when it comes to the script,” she said. “He’s been very open to actors improvising lines at certain moments and adjusting lines if the actors feel comfortable saying them a certain way. It’s always nerve-wracking to show a playwright what you’ve done with their work, but I’m grateful to Joe for being helpful, supportive, and open to new ideas.”
Although Conform’s story existed for a brief period on stage during the fall semester of 2017, its impact in McNaney’s life will carry on. The challenges McNaney faced during writing Conform were simultaneously small and large. Small because, in the moment, Conform is a 33 page script, approximately 25 minutes in length, which creates an intriguing story of personal triumph by tugging at the imagination and personal triumph of the playwright. Yet large, because it is an opportunity for an aspiring and young playwright to make a mark in an incredibly demanding field which presents few opportunities to make it big.
However, Conform is a production that McNaney ideally wants to re-visit again in his future career endeavors, even though it may end up being one small step in his future potential career. “In 10 years I want to have re-written this play and fixed plot holes.”
But for McNaney, the decision to write this show was simple; he wanted to bring the most meaningful story he possibly could to the audience.
“I just thought about something I know that many others don’t and I tried to show them something I think really matters.”