Alexandra Petri is very normal, or at least that’s what her mother and father have always told her growing up.
One might surmise they said this out of a parental concern that the child of a U.S. Representative and the president of an outspoken education reform nonprofit might be deprived of a relatively ordinary childhood – but actually, they told her so because young Petri often did things that gave others pause.
“I was a super strange kid,” Petri admits. “One time a friend of the family came to our house and gave me a stuffed animal, a cat. I was about seven and I said: ‘I shall name her Bismarck – But after the boat and not the general.’ They sort of left quickly after that. I think my parents kept telling me I was normal because of incidents like that.”
It’s the 25-year-old playwright’s lifelong experiences with questions of normality that have made it a reoccurring theme in her work, the latest of which “The Campsite Rule” will be read by the Washington Rogues at the Kennedy Center’s 2013 Page-to-Stage festival on Labor Day.
In The Campsite Rule, Petri explores the concept put forth by syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage that when a May-December romance ends, the older party must always leave the younger party better than they found him – or her.
The play was conceived in February over some drinks and a plate of tater tots with Ryan Taylor, The Washington Rogue’s artistic director. Petri discussed the possibility of using Savage’s advice as the basis for a new work and Taylor encouraged her to write it for Page-to-Stage. When Petri began work on the idea in July, she was able to complete the bulk of the play in three weeks.
“Ryan has joked that it is a land-speed record from conception to reading,” says Petri. “I can’t believe it’s going from this cool idea to hey, we’re having a reading at the Kennedy Center.”
It’s the first time Petri, a humor columnist for the Washington Post, has participated in Page-to-Stage, though her plays have been a recent fixture at the Capitol Fringe Festival and her children’s musical Treetop Idol has been performed at area elementary schools. She also has about 15-20 works that are “production ready” – including several plays that feature Lady Macbeth, she says.
“It will be awesome to be surrounded by all the other theater companies and the things they’re excited about showing off,” Petri says of Page-to-Stage. “It’s like letting people into your kitchen to smell this wonderful aroma of what’s coming and telling them to come back later and taste the stew.”
The Campsite Rule
by Alexandra Petri
Directed by Megan Behm
Monday, Sept 2 at 7:30pm
Reading by Washington Rogues
Cast: Rachel Manteuffel, Gwen Grastorf, Frank Britton, Chris Stinson, Grant
Cloyd, Jessica Shearer, Mary Myers
Terrace Gallery, Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Petri’s Campsite stew focuses on Susan (Rachel Manteuffel), a twenty-something woman who finds herself romantically entangled with a college freshman (Chris Stinson). While a five or six-year age difference is hardly scandalous at other points in life, it can be when one party is only a year into legal adulthood.
Susan’s atypical relationship leads to considerable judgement by her peer group, who are also facing various forms of romantic complications. Other cast and crew members include Gwen Gastrof, Frank Britton, Grant Cloyd, Mary Myers, Jessica Shearer and Clem Trott.
“Sometimes the things that people judge you for are actually good decisions, and the things that everyone likes, well, for example Cosmo Magazine has that column ‘You go Girl’ and it’s generally something that’s said to you when you’ve made horrible decisions. Like ‘You can have 60 martinis! You Go Girl!’,” Petri says.
“It’s transitioning from that period when all your friends are there to reinforce all your bad decision-making, to learning to enjoy someone’s company when you’re upright and not standing on kegs. It’s navigating that gap between college and real life.”
Director Megan Behm, who is a big fan of Petri’s plays and column, says she was drawn to the story for its honesty.
“There are certain moments in the play when you’re laughing and then someone says something and you have to stop and think for a second about whether or not you agree with it,” Behm says. “She’s challenging the audience to think more critically about the way we interact with each other, while also being very, very funny.”
Petri’s collaboration with The Washington Rogues on The Campsite Rule has been extensive. After reading the first draft, Behm and Petri discussed revisions and after the cast’s first reading, Petri revised the play even more. Just a few days ago, she changed the ending and added a new character. Any criticism is helpful, says Petri, adding that she’s never attached to individual lines or words.
While cast members are all in their 20s, Petri says the themes they deal with have been around forever – despite a tendency of some to decry the moral breakdown of youth today.
“People are always gunning to see the youth of our day doing terrible things and having hookups and bad relationships, but that’s been going on for thousands of years,” Petri says. “Aristophanes had these long harangues about short pricks and fat butts. It’s always been going on.”
Her meditations on sex and love may seem similar to many other popular female 20-something writers such as Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO show “Girls”, but it’s a comparison Petri isn’t entirely comfortable with.
“Anything with awkward sex in it gets compared to “Girls” and before that everything was “Sex and the City”” Petri says. “Lena Dunham deserves the attention she’s getting, but there are so many other people going through similar things or totally different experiences, so it’s always good to have a panoply of voices versus one super-talented, but admittedly limited perspective.”
Petri’s own perspective comes from growing up in the District as the daughter of Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri and Anne D. Neil, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She’s always loved writing and humor, putting on plays in the family’s garage and was a part of the young playwright’s program at the Arena Stage. While attending the all-girl National Cathedral high school, she created a humor magazine called “Perturbed Squirrel” that was an Onion-style take on campus news.
“My family’s funny. I think we’ve always been very into laughing at absurdity,” she says.
At Harvard University, Petri studied English and the Classics and was part of the first all-female writing team for the Hasty Puddying Theatricals (along with classmate Megan Amram, now a writer for NBC’s hit sitcom, “Parks and Recreation”). After graduating in 2010, Petri took an internship at the Washington Post to write Compost, the paper’s first humor blog. She was debating studying Renaissance Poetry at Oxford University, when the Post asked her to stay on as a staff member and she happily accepted.
Her work has garnered national attention. In July, she signed a book deal with Penguin called “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences” due out in 2015. The book will be a collection of humorous first-person essays about being awkward, she says.
“I think I’m a huge nerd and when you’re a huge nerd you have two options – you can bat your hands in the air in general unpleasantness, or you can be a self-deprecating jokey nerd, and I think I was the latter,” Petri says.
Those who’ve seen her plays will see that Petri often captures a uniquely intense D.C. psychology, adds Behm. While Petri cites Emily Dickenson, who lived in Massachusetts her whole life yet “came from everywhere because she reads things,” Petri concedes that her hometown has had a significant impact on her work.
“In New York or Los Angeles people are almost contractually obligated to be weird – wearing moon shoes and stuff like that,” Petri says. “In DC, everyone is often very strange, and interesting, and wacky, and smart – but they have to keep it down, they have to sit on it. They’re weird people pretending to be normal, and that can be very funny.”