It’s San Francisco in the 1970s. Fifteen-year-old Minnie has just started an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Shit.
So reads the tag line for the world premiere of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a new play written by Marielle Heller, adapted from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Gloeckner’s fearless leader, Minnie, is clearly not your average teen even though at first glance there may be a resemblance. She’s convinced she’s ugly, she experiences intense sexual awakenings, she experiments with drugs, she struggles with friends and family, but through all of this, it is Minnie’s determination to record her life as truthfully as possible, through both words and images, that catapults her to cult status.
Three years ago, Heller’s sister, a graphic novel fan, gave her the book for Christmas. From the minute she closed the cover, she knew this was a story that needed to become a play, that Minnie was a character she wanted to embody. Heller picked up the phone, that day, and called the publisher. A swift “no” was issued. The rights had been sought before and due to the extremely personal nature of the story, Gloeckner’s reps were just not interested, but thank you for calling. Heller persisted. She phoned the agent again, saying “no” to their “no.” Saying, this is important. Saying, I am doing this. Her tenacity paid off, and by the end of a long conversation, she had been granted an opportunity to give a presentation of how she envisioned the project. Ten months later, the rights were hers, and both Gloeckner and agent were friends.
“I feel such a huge responsibility to Pheobe and the story,” says Heller. “This book obviously was one of the biggest things she’s ever done in her life. She spent seven years writing it and she told me when we were talking that she felt like it almost killed her.” Which immediately makes you ask, how much of this is autobiographical? The graphic novel is written from Minnie’s perspective and is portrayed as fictional, but in the way that makes you think it absolutely must have happened because there is something so exciting about the outrageous honesty of the tone that, well, is too good to be fiction. A straight answer to this question is never 100% given by the playwright and her co-directors Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling, but it sparks a conversation about the question.
Is it important to know if a story is rooted in reality? Sometimes. Does it affect how we the audience watch a story? Yes. Does it affect the level of responsibility that the adaptor, directors, designers and performers feel when bringing a damaged teenage quasi-heroine to the stage? Absolutely.
Sunde asks, “All art is based in reality, so why is the public so obsessed at this moment about what is real and what is not real?” Everyone agrees that ultimately, this graphic novel is a piece of fiction that lives by itself. We pause to acknowledge the tell-all, reality obsessed world we live in where people named Snooki shoot to fame overnight for being obnoxious, and everyone agrees it’s a valid question. Heller brings it back around when she points out that, “It matters (if the story is based in reality) if it creates a bigger sense of connection with the audience.” And that’s the point, after all, isn’t it? To take one piece of work, the book, and transform it into a dramatic, theatrical, piece of theater that connects to an audience. It’s understood that much of the story has some foundation in Gloeckner’s personal history, but we swiftly move on.
“I think what’s important is the heart of the story,” explains Eckerling. “That’s the most important thing. It’s a universal story. And it’s captured in the time of the 1970s in San Francisco, but it really connects to girls on the whole in terms of turning to art as a way to get through tough times. It’s also about sexual awakening and that women at fifteen do have sexual desires, that they do like sex, they’re curious and they’re just as curious as boys are. And that that is allowed and good.”
It absolutely is about sexual awakenings and desires. It sure is. Back to that in a minute.
You rarely see a production that has co-directors, and when questioned about this Eckerling was fast to say, “We basically share a brain.” Sunde adding, “As opposed to thinking of it as us splitting this job, we like to think we can do so much more because there are two of us.” And with all the multi-media elements that seems just about right.
Just as Gloeckner’s graphic novel uses different formats as storytelling devices—diary entries, letters, poems, songs, drawings—Heller, Eckerling, Sunde, and their creative team have taken this as inspiration in approaching the adaptation. Incorporating video, live audio recording and playback, creating a set cloaked with beige tiers of wall-to-wall carpeting, a lone bed the center of its universe. Using fantasy, dreams and reality to create the world that is alive inside Minnie’s head, the one she is so desperately documenting in her attempt to make sense of it. They want the multi-media to be just as important as the live actors, without overtaking the live actors. They want to strike a balance that mirrors how Gloeckner uses words and images in the initial book to tell her story.
“That’s part of the storytelling,” says Eckerling. “Finding a way that was really going to be three-dimensional, that was really going to take what’s in the book and what you feel of the experience and bring that to life in the room. How do we bring some of Pheobe’s drawings into this world.”
The biggest challenge in the past three years has been not to give up hope when the team was small, when they were putting together the initial readings and trying to make something happen. In the first reading, at New Georges two years ago, the script was 170-pages long—the attachment to the source material interfering with dramatic structure. But over the course of numerous readings, one in L.A. that Gloeckner attended (she was thrilled), and a small workshop, what has emerged is a 90-minute show. Heller combined some characters, had to release others, one is present only in the video element. Basically she had to fight for what was best for the stage version, and that is no easy task because every entry, every letter, every picture in the book itself deserves attention.
Since so much of the story centers on the sexual experiences of Minnie, and the act of her recording them, there is the question of how exposed the sexual content becomes. It would seem easy to give in to shock value. What’s incredibly hot and addictive about The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the nuance and almost casualness of how Minnie addresses her sexual experiences. There’s a layer of naïveté to Minnie that is fascinating since it doesn’t match her actions. It’s not that she doesn’t judge herself, it’s that her judgment manifests in different ways, none of them overt or heavy handedly condemning.
Following the relationship of Minnie and Monroe (her mother’s boyfriend) is fascinating. Heller says part of the phenomenon of reading the book is that at some point you start rooting for them as a couple. But then you pull back, horrified by your own ability to get caught up in the delicate nature of the story. Somehow, the clumsy tenderness that sometimes surfaces makes you occasionally forget the societal norms that tell you—don’t EVER sleep with your mother’s boyfriend and regardless, it’s absolutely not okay for a 15 year old to become involved with a man in his 30s. (Even though that’s still very young.)
For this production, they want to create an experience where the audience can judge for themselves. They feel this will be achieved by being as honest as possible about the parts of the story that are awkward, the parts that are sexy and thrilling—all held together by the low hum of danger. “It’s about towing that grey zone where we’re not judging the relationships, we’re not judging the sexuality, we’re allowing people to get wrapped up in it at times, and then pulled out of it in times, and being upset by it at times and excited by it at times,” says Heller.
Heller, who will take the stage as 15 year old Minnie very soon, reminds us very simply, “It’s about a girl alone in her room.” It is about a diary after all.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Marielle Heller, adapted from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Co-directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling. Produced by Aaron Lewis in association with New Georges & The Essentials. Performances run from March 15-April 12 at 3LD Art & Technology Center. For more information please visit thediaryofateenagegirl.com