Recently I attended the premiere performance of Welcome to the Neighborhood, a play written by Steven Stack. Steven also teaches acting at Forte Studios, and has written several other productions for them.
Welcome to the Neighborhood is set at a teen slumber party. Chloe, the new girl, invites three friends over. As they take magazine quizzes, Chloe realizes how little she knows them, and how well they know each other. And when white-masked faces appear at the window, she learns that being “different” may be deadly.
Thematically the play deals with the tension of fitting in versus being yourself, and it’s dramatized by the identical white masks worn by various cast members. I asked Steve about the process of writing, and what effect he hoped to achieve.
Me: You had to balance a scary topic, the loss of individualism, with the demands of writing a play for kids. How did you determine where the line was?
Steven: Most of the scenes and plays I write have messages since teenagers are usually my primary audience, but I like to bury that message beneath layers and layers of story to avoid the preachy feeling that “message” plays can sometimes have. And it never ceases to amaze me what middle-school and high-school students can achieve on stage. The actors didn’t let the mood of the story overwhelm them—they maintained an impressive level of professionalism. And no one in the audience fainted, as far as I know.
My goal with Welcome to the Neighborhood was to make it clear what the story is saying, while at the same time achieving a Twilight Zone-type effect for the overall mood. That way, the story isn’t sacrificed for the sake of making a point. Focusing on the story and letting the message come from that actually made the message stronger (at least I hope so).
The ending built toward an expected payoff, which you subverted into ambiguity. What was the thought process behind that?
The original ending in the first draft had the expected twist ending, where Chloe made the decision to give up her individuality. But the more I thought about it, it just felt cheap and done for effect. On the other hand, I didn’t want her to make the “right” decision because that felt like a feel-good ending that would be hard for the audience to connect with. So in the end, I left it up in the air, which felt more realistic: who knows what choice any given teenager would make? It depends on the day, the weather, their last haircut – there are so many variables to consider. So I had Chloe realize that even though she does an admirable job in general of staying true to herself, in the background that pressure to conform is always there.
What were the biggest differences between the play as you wrote it and the way it was finally performed?
The main difference from the first writing was that the focus at the beginning of the play changed completely. At first, I played up the horror aspects of the play by using lights, the neighborhood people, even creepy music to frighten the audience. As I continued to develop the play, I realized that I had placed the focus in the wrong place. Instead of the suspenseful elements, the early focus of the story needed to be on the characters – especially Chloe’s family – and their relationships with one another. Not coincidentally, I realized this around the time that our daughter was born.
I also made some other character changes, including giving the menacing Officer Williams a deeper back story to make her more relatable for the audience. During the rehearsal process, the actors continued to connect with their characters, creating moments of further growth. Seeing the play performed with those changes in place was immensely gratifying. It’s come a long way from its first form.
What do you want the audience–i.e., kids–to take away from this?
That the world is full of people who have lost their uniqueness, the special flair that they alone could have brought to the world, because of the relentless societal pressures they encountered to fit in and go along with what “everybody else does.” It’s a safer path, of course. But it’s a tragedy when someone loses that joy that we all had when we were young, when we had no reason not to be ourselves and to let what made us special stand out. We’re here for such a brief time and it saddens me to think that we still tell kids and adults that they have to be a certain way if they are to be accepted. The message of Welcome to the Neighborhood is that maybe fitting in and being accepted are overrated, and that the most important thing they can achieve with their life is to stay true to the person that they are on the inside.
Thanks to Steven for taking time to answer my questions.