I sat down with playwright Madhuri Shekar at Signature Theatre, where her play In Love and Warcraft ran in the ARK until January 25th. We’d done the getting-to-know-you thing: She’s from LA, grew up in India, and moved back to the states to get her MA in Communications and an MFA in playwriting at USC. Her Kendeda-Award winning play was getting its sophomore production at No Rules Theater Company.
Alan Katz: Tell me a bit about the story of the play.
Madhuri Shekar: Evie is a senior in college who has it all figured out. She makes money writing love letters for other students, and she’s one of the best Warcraft Universe players out there. She has an online boyfriend who is very much on her terms. She’s terrified of sex and intimacy. That requires people and vulnerability and opening up. Her roommate and best friend is her polar opposite, who lives too much in her body and loves sex too much. Very much an odd couple. The story takes off when a client comes to Evie. He’s very cute and they start going out, but she’s scared of having sex with him and losing her virginity. So much safer to be in the online universe. That’s the big conflict in the play: will she be able to leave her safe universe to experience this new thing?
Is there a memory or an experience that this play grew out of?
It was inspired by something my professor told me. She told me about how she wrote love letters for people in college. I thought, “That’s a wonderful romantic comedy premise.” So the first draft had no gaming in it, but I thought, “This needs something else; it needs to be funnier.”
Then I realized that Evie, the main character, was a gamer. A lot of her struggles with engaging in the virtual world and not with actual people in real life really comes from my experience growing up on the internet as a teenager. In India, I felt very isolated, that I couldn’t engage with people my own age as me. But on the internet, there were all these people who shared my interests. I became very involved in the Harry Potter fan fiction community.
Haven’t we all?
Seriously, it has been great. I have real life friends now from my time as a teenager talking with people around the world. That emotionally inspired this piece. The feeling of how you can create a community for yourself on the internet. A place where people don’t know what you look like, you have so much control over how you interact. That’s what World of Warcraft is, it’s this fantastical world where you have control over what you look like, who you play with. You know the rules – if you do x, then y will happen. Every time. It is very comforting, very addicting. When you have something as beautiful and wonderful as that, why would you want to live in the real world? What’s the point?
What’s your experience with gaming platforms?
I was never a serious gamer growing up. I was really into Pokemon during exams in school. I’d shut myself in the bathroom and play Pokemon for hours. Never World of Warcraft, but it was interesting to me. It felt like the most theatrical of games. I had wonderful help from many Warcraft gamers along the way. With every production or reading, there’s always someone involved in the play who plays. In fact, the props designer Sierra Banack met her husband on World of Warcraft.
Better than Match.com?
That’s the thing, it is! Evie’s relationship with her online boyfriend seems silly from the outside, but, no, you form very intense relationships with the people you play with. You spend hours together talking and figuring things out together. You have to make appointments to game together, it’s a responsibility. So it becomes a big part of your life, and those relationships can be just as real as ones where you physically see the person.
Why did you want to write this play?
I wanted to write it because no one really writes about the sexual anxieties that young people have. Especially young women, who are sexualized, but not portrayed as truly sexual. A lot of what my female characters in this play go through is how they deal with the expectations of sex and sexuality that are put on them. Evie’s fears and anxieties are something that no one seems to be talking about.
One of my favorite reactions to the play was from the first workshop at USC. After the reading one of the students I was a TA for came up to me and said, “Oh my god, I felt like I was such a loser for being a virgin, and my boyfriend and I had that exact same conversation. This made me feel better.” I said, “You’re 18, girl, relax!” There’s such real anxieties, especially in college, around sex and expectations, but it’s all in your head.
Do you know Evies in real life? Are you an Evie?
Evie and Kitty in equal parts. Evie and her roommate Kitty both use sex as a form of control, but in different ways. I think most women are a mix of the two, yin and yang. But I really wanted to write Evie’s story because I didn’t see it told. You see a lot of stories about the painfully shy virginal male nerd. A lot of those stories, and never about the painfully shy virginal female nerd. Why can’t she can’t get the hot guy at the end?
We see that virginal female archetype in tragedy quite a bit, but it is a great change of pace to see her in comedy.
I think it’s inherently funny when there’s a girl who doesn’t consider herself pretty or who thinks she just isn’t desirable (which many young girls go through), it’s funny when she finds herself with this really hot boyfriend who wants to have sex with her and she says, “No. Nuh-uh. Not happening.”
I wrote this play when I was 24 or 25. Just 3 or 4 years down the line, I look at this play and think, “Look at where I was. I know so much more now.” The play is a look into what I thought in that particular window of my life.
So this play is a time capsule of this point in your life and this point in many people’s lives. If you could break into that time capsule, knowing what you know, what would you say to yourself as Evie?
The first thing I would say is that Tina Fey lost her virginity at the age of 24, so relax. [laughs] You have no idea how important that was to so many people around the world. And then there’s this line in the play from Kitty. She says, “Even if you weren’t pretty, it doesn’t matter. Ugly women get laid all the time. Haven’t you ever been to Walmart? Ugly people making out everywhere. It’s really sweet.”
That was a big life lesson I learned, that sex and the way you look have nothing to do with each other. When you look at the media, you don’t get that idea at all. Desirability and sexuality are both very complicated. Learn how -oh no, this is so fucking trite- learn how to love yourself. But I don’t know what I’d say. Whatever I said, my younger self would probably ignore it.
No Rules Theatre’s production of In Love and Warcraft has closed. Madhuri Shekar is now overseeing the opening of her play A Nice Indian Boy at Victory Gardens, Chicago. You can follow the career of this playwright/actor/film festival publicist on her website: http://madhurishekar.com/.