Toward the close of playwright Philip Dawkins' drama The Burn, social media literally engulfs the cadre of high school girls at the story's incendiary core.
Online chatterInstagram, Facebook, texts and morehave been a potent presence throughout, but in the script's final scenes, virtual reality becomes visceral reality. And while the words themselves are a slurry of outright lies, petty insults and vicious slander, they might as well be true. One line sums up the power of the online world with chilling accuracy: "The more people see it, the truer it becomes."
As a Theatre for Young Audiences production at Steppenwolf Theatre, The Burn will be making the rounds of schools and juvenile detention centers throughout March, following three public performances this weekend.
It's the latest from Dawkins, who also penned The Homosexuals, a multi-generational look at friendship and romance among gay men; and Charm, a poignant exploration of a transwoman's etiquette classes for troubled youth. Both were commercial and critical hits for About Face and Northlight, respectively.
Dawkins returns to teen life with The Burn, setting it in the brutal ecosystem that is high school. The drama follows a group of girls rehearsing a student production of The Crucible. As rehearsals commence, life begins to imitate life, student bullying providing a disturbing parallel to the Puritan persecution of so-called witches. With quick, slang-heavy bursts of overlapping dialogue, Dawkins intentionally blurs the line between virtual reality and IRL reality. It's often difficult to tell if someone is communicating electronically or actually talking face-to-face.
"For older people, adults, I think we have a tendency to think that what happens on social media isn't quite real. It's just virtual," Dawkins said. "But for many young people, the difference between the two doesn't matter.Whether the words come out of your mouth or a machine, words are words. They have intent. They have meaning. They have consequences. Just because it's happening on the web and not over brunch doesn't mean it isn't real," Dawkins said.
As in The Crucible, words in The Burn have profound and awful consequences. What starts as name-calling escalates into violence.
Along the way, Dawkins explores the multiple identities the students maintain via various online and offline platforms. "I can be a zillion different people," notes one girl. The all-but unanswerable response: "Yeah, but which one's real?"
"The play is about identity," said Dawkins. "It's about a generation that is forced to have a whole bunch of identitiesyou have your school identity, your church identity, your family identitywe've always had those. But now you also have to have your Facebook identity. And your Snapchat identity. And your Instagram identity. And marketers are coming up with new ones every weeka new thing you have to join and make a profile of how you want to be seen. It's an endless performance, endless renderings of who you feel you should be.
"And it's all for approval ratings, all based on how many 'likes' some version of you can get," he said.
Bullying and identity are at the nexus of The Burn.
"I think the internet has made bullying worse," said Dawkins. "Adults have made it worse too. Among adults these days, bullying is acceptable and lauded. Behavior that used to get you fired now can get you promoted to the White House."
A longtime Lake View resident living "happily in sin" with partner Bryan Bosque, Dawkins, 37, remains well-versed in the ways of high schoolers. He teaches playwriting at Loyola, and tutors high school students through the Chicago non-profit Horizons for Youth. To make sure he had teenspeak down, he interviewed members of Steppenwolf's Youth council. Dawkins also has his own experiences with high school bullying.
"I absolutely experienced [bullying]," he said, "Mine was generally more physical because I was [and, hopefully, still am] effeminate. I'm also sure there were kids I bullied as well. I'm not blameless," he said.
"One thing I've learned is that bullying is the same as it ever was," he added. "It's just moved into different forums. Wherever there is fear and insecurity, people are going to lash out with whatever they have available.
All of us spend so much time being assholes to each other online. Imagine what we could do if we put that energy somewhere else."
Public performances for The Burn run through Sunday, March 11, at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20 ( $15 with student ID ); call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org .