If the theater lacks a young audience, it may be in part because young people don't often see themselves portrayed realistically on stage. Spencer Christiano's "Cow Town," a new play opening this weekend at MuCCC, addresses that situation, holding a mirror up to modern behavior, good and bad.
"Cow Town" is about ... a lot of different things. Christiano sets his play "in a small town in upstate New York and the large city nearby," which should have a familiar ring. The play is focused on the interactions of four young adults, including people who left town to go to college and remained in the city, and their friends who stayed put. Whether in the city or the country, the present and the future are equally bleak and confused for all of them.
"It's about that time in your life when you've graduated from college and don't know what to do with your life," says Melyssa Hall, the director of "Cow Town." "When you come back home, but home no longer gets you. All our lives we've been told about our endless possibilities. Then suddenly we find ourselves feeling this inertia set in -- realizing that possibilities aren't endless, and having no idea what to do with our lives or our relationships."
The characters' lives play out against a specifically contemporary background of economic uncertainty and diminished expectations, enormous college debts and dead-end jobs, and, to quote Hall, "behavior that would make our parents disappointed in us." That behavior -- involving booze, drugs, and sex -- leads to bad decisions and desperate, sometimes violent, confrontations.
Christiano calls the play "a slice of life," and admits, "There are not a lot of clear answers in it, but I hope that I can see the reasons why the characters do what they do. It can be scary to emphasize with someone who does bad things. I don't judge my characters very much, I observe them and ask why they may do the things they do. Some are good and some are not so good, but they all have souls and I hope they generate sympathy.
"I think I show sex in a real, not overly romanticized way. The play is partly about the murkiness of consent, and about how we figure out what we want in relationships. What does it mean to be coupled -- to you and to the other person? What is the middle ground? It's about the confusions of modern love, informed by hook-up culture." (The play's realistic depictions of sex and violence make it inappropriate for children under 17.)
Christiano, who graduated from Aquinas Institute in 2005, has written several plays that have been produced at GevaNextstage, SUNY Brockport, the University of Rochester -- and at MuCCC, where he is now an artist-in-residence. In the case of "Cow Town," the phrase "artist-in-residence" has multiple meanings, since Christiano not only wrote the play, he is producing it, and designed the set, lighting, and sound.
Melyssa Hall, a 2013 graduate of SUNY Geneseo, met Christiano at a MuCCC College Theater Festival. He gave her the script of "Cow Town" and, she says, "I immediately understood what this play was about. I hadn't read anything about the generation of people we belong to -- people in our mid-20's -- that was also written by one of us." She originally wanted to perform in it, but Christiano persuaded her to direct it instead.
MuCCC helped Christiano develop his script, which he started to write about a year ago. The author and the director recall that "Cow Town" was controversial from its initial reading with a group of theater professionals. "There were some serious opinions about some of these characters and their behavior," Hall says.
"The play has definitely had polarizing reactions," Christiano adds. But they both hope they've come up with a play and production that, in their words, "people will want to talk about afterwards."
Both Hall and Christiano note that it can be difficult to get people in their 20's to come to see a play, as opposed to watching a movie or a TV show, but they hope they will find "Cow Town" worth the effort -- and that it strikes a nerve with them.
"I want so badly for theater to speak to younger people," Hall says.
"Theater is real," Christiano says. "It's people gathering in a certain place at a certain time and paying attention to the same thing. It is absolutely the correct medium in which to say things to the community. All theater is community theater."