If you, like the rest of us, thought that the dire state of the global economy couldn’t really get much worse — think again. Felipe Ossa’s new play, Monetizing Emma, takes us into a horrific and disarmingly realistic near future, in which investing in teenagers’ futures has become the newest financial fad to sweep across the U.S., alluring and manipulating very smart and very vulnerable youth, like the titular Emma Dorfman. Financial wisecracks (and comedic Punch and Judy style banter from the two monetizers, anxious to get Emma on their books) are juxtaposed with Emma’s penchant for Jane Austen and punctuated by her struggle to retain her sense of self when everyone around her is bartering for a piece.
Intrigued? We sat down with director Leah Bonvissuto and members of the cast to discuss money, materialism, The Matrix, and the marketplace.
Flavorpill: Leah, what first attracted you to the play?
Leah Bonvissuto: It’s just so topical, and I think the best theater is topical while being funny — to me, that’s the best way to get under an audience’s skin. With visual comedy in particular, there’s really a chance to showcase absurdism, but absurdism that screams of truth. The writing is so sharp and quick that it’s really fun and challenging for the actors, and in a sense, we’re not so far off from monetizing teenagers. That in itself is such a frightening and compelling idea.
FP: In terms of directing, what influences did you draw from?
LB: I wanted it to be a mix between The Matrix and Jane Austen — The Matrix side of things is represented in the costume and the physical work, and Austen is really symbolic of Emma’s struggle with negotiating truth. She’s surrounded by all these semi-ridiculous characters, whose high-comedy really acts as a counterpoint to her quest to find the right thing to do.
FP: What challenges did you face when you first came to the play?
LB: The humor of the writing means that it could easily fall into being a very surface comedy, but working so closely with Felipe [Ossa] really kept us grounded. From the script alone, I think we could really end up not caring very much for Emma, but Nitya [Vidyasaga] has brought a lot of depth to the character. Emma is not a one-dimensional 15-year-old; she’s not gullible, but she’s certainly vulnerable and Nitya’s performance really highlights that.
FP: Nitya, how did you find the experience of playing an adolescent?
Nitya Vidyasaga: I think adolescence is such an isolating, complicated time — everything is very much all in your head. As an adult, it’s pretty hard to look back on and embody being a teenager because of that barrier. That was my main challenge in approaching the character of Emma. All the problems of adolescence are very abstract and hard to convey, so I found the best way to get inside the character was with physical work. I thought a lot about mannerisms, weight placement; concrete, visual ways of displaying the character. She’s a very vulnerable, fragile individual amongst all of these over-confident adults, so I really had to go back to that place of insecurity where we’ve all been as teenagers.
FP: At its heart, this is a play about trust and risks, exploring what these concepts mean. What risks do you think you’ve taken as a company?
LB: There’s a scene where Tony [one of the bankers keen to keep Emma monetized] and Emma become very close friends — it’s never entirely clear to what extent he’s manipulating her, and for us there is a very fine line as to how far we take that relationship. She’s 15, he’s in his late thirties, and while it may be uncomfortable to watch it play out, in theatre discomfort is not always a bad thing.
FP: How do you think audiences will react?
LB: I want audiences to laugh first, but then to be freaked out by the fact that they are laughing. The play really isn’t that far from reality, and I hope that the audience accepts the parallels between Austen’s marriage economy and the idea of selling intellect in our story. Parents do marry their children off to what is profitable and sustainable.
Felipe Ossa: The themes of the play are very timely, but actually the themes that we drew from Austen are pretty timeless. There’s the idea that girls have always been involved in economic compromises. We wanted to pose the question: In the 21st century, would a mother be marrying her daughter off to a suitor, or to the marketplace?