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INTERVIEW: Sam Graber on Creating mONSTER

On September 29, Swandive Theatre premieres Sam Graber’s play mONSTER at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. This play is set entirely in a college dorm room in August 1994, during what’s billed as “the dark beginnings of the World Wide Web.” Some of the play’s themes include the mechanics of online hate speech, obsession with online vs. offline discourse, and roommate conflict. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with playwright Sam Graber about this play.

Playwright Sam Graber.

Why the capitalization in the title mONSTER?

The capitalization device in the title is based on the frequent caps reversal by online coders to emphasize sensitive or provocative terms. I had originally pursued the full of this meme by substituting the O with ‘zero’ but m0NSTER was deemed too abstruse.

Meanwhile, it’s now come back to present some consistency issues because Facebook mandates proper punctuation in all event page titles; Swandive was forced to revert to Monster there.

The promotional blurb for mONSTER calls it “a disquieting look at the beginning of the web and its evolution into today’s ever present, indispensable yet destructive tool.” How far back are you looking at “the beginning”? ARPANET? BBSs? 

We are looking at the beginning of the World Wide Web. And even then we decided to look at a very specific moment in time: August 1994, when the Web was first becoming popular as an application of the Internet and on its way to establishing itself as the next big thing.

[Editor’s note: The World Wide Web grew explosively during 1994, more than quadrupling in size to more than 10,000 websites by the year’s end.]

What was the inspiration or catalyst for this play?

It’s funny, because I’ve typically written plays about the immediate future. My ideas usually come from taking the sticky beats of today’s social condition to the extremes of unknown tomorrows. In this case, the origin of mONSTER was a byproduct of the things that just happened to be going on in my life at the time: a Ray Bradbury short story, a Time magazine feature, and watching a bunch of people freak out on each other on social media.

From this, I sort of used a writer’s curiosity and a bit of free association to arrive at a question: what if there’s a monster living in the Internet? But as the concept developed we realized it would be much more potent to set the play in the past.

Which Ray Bradbury short story was that?

Not really a specific Bradbury short story – I was inhaling a compendium of his works, and more the tone poetry and his subject style of storytelling.

And the Time magazine feature?

The Time cover story that helped inspire the play.

The Time magazine was a cover story examining the culture of hate within the Internet, “”Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate” by Joel Stein.

Was the social media freak-out about anything in particular?

I’m pretty sure the FB attacks were over something political. Or animal videos. These days, same thing, right?

The whole play takes place in a dorm room. This is an interesting restriction – why does it exist? When was this decision made in the process of creating this play?

The dorm room came immediately. I was thinking there’s a physical point in our lives where we go from being our old selves to our new selves. And get to reinvent who we are. And represent our sense of self-identity in a new way. Sort of similar to what I call “assuming the position” online. But of course, when you first get to college as a freshman you’re living in a real space with a total stranger. How do those two things cross connect? And where do moral shifts occur?

How did your partnership with Swandive originate?

I’ve always wanted to work with Swandive. They have a strong track record of presenting challenging, intense, powerful and intelligent plays. I just hope I live up to their billing!

Swandive Theatre’s world premiere production of mONSTER opens at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, MN on September 29 and plays through October 7.

Basil Considine