to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic, The Welders

Here's my story:

I got a LiveJournal in 2002, but my fandom history goes back much further than that. I was writing Star Wars fanfiction before I really understood that that was a thing people could do, and participating in Dragonriders of Pern RPGs on Prodigy message boards that I was definitely too young to participate in, oops, sorry about that, mom.  I rediscovered fandom slowly during college, finally able to see the bigger picture of the communities of fans that were out there and were dominating LJ (as us cool kids called it).  Being a fan means loving something, but fandom, I learned, meant connecting with people who cared about the same things I did, and those people became my friends online and then in real life. And if you met someone out in the world who you discovered was also in fandom, it was like suddenly discovering someone from your hometown- you had a shared language and reference points, and knew where the best places to go for coffee (AUs) would be.  Like most people, I move in many different circles- music, theatre, academia, fandoms, family, and more.  Sometimes they cross in wonderful ways- my academia friends can take Shakespeare and create the annual Shakespeare Histories Ficathon (which is both real and TERRIFIC), taking theatre and turning it into fandom.

Here's the other story:

But I'd never yet seen a show that took fandom and turned it into theatre in quite the way that Alexandra Petri does in to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic.  Many will know Petri best from her column in the Washington Post, but her writing also includes numerous plays staged here in DC and beyond. Petri's work has combined a keen eye for satire with an intelligent and wide-ranging sense of humor, and when I learned that she was a part of the new coterie of The Welders (a DC-based playwrights' collective), I was excited to see what would be the result. I never expected a play with fanfic in the title, however. For many of us, fandom was our secret club, and the first rule of fanfic was WE DON'T TALK ABOUT FANFIC- at least not where normals could hear us.  While attitudes around fandom and other aspects of nerd culture have been shifting in recent years, it still feels disorienting to have people breaking their silence in public spaces about Draco's leather trousers or the preponderance of sex pollen in space.

  Colin Connor, Shravan Amin and Annie Ottati Photo credit: Teresa Castracane

The best parody comes out of love and specificity, and as Petri's play stages all-too-familiar tropes of bad fanfiction, it becomes apparent to those of us in the Know that she knows all the codewords we share.  It's an interesting litmus test to see who among the audience cackles at an early-2000s in-joke from Harry Potter fandom vs. the folks who won't realize the joke was even there.  If you don't know this world (which seemed to be the case for many in the audience on opening night, which is entirely fair), there's plenty of more accessible humor in the fictional scenes created by Petri's characters. Petri knows how to write a good joke, and there are jokes aplenty throughout the evening.

Petri's story isn't just a pastiche of badfic tropes, of course; rather, it uses the world of fanfiction as a starting place, where fandom functions as a place where young people find their voices, can use stories to understand and make sense of their desires and their world, and make connections that last and support them in their most difficult trials.  And these characters are certainly in need of what fandom can offer, as their struggles are rooted in the tragedies of Hamlet.

Our narrator is Chloe Mikala's Horatio, who guides us first into the world of fandom and then into her friendship with Elsie, a writer she admires and then befriends in complex mixture of online and real life. Elsie's life follows a familiar pattern- her father dies, her mother remarries, and her only friend suddenly starts avoiding her at the behest of her father.  The transformation of the Hamlet story into the milieu of teenage fangirls works surprisingly well- after all, Hamlet was a theatre nerd in Shakespeare's play, who had memorized whole speeches by heart from his favorite company and was a font of unasked for advice on acting.  The production is anchored by a strong and engaging performance by Annie Ottati as Elsie, our new central character.  The cast is rounded out by Sarah Taurchini (as Ophelia and others) and Shravan Amin and Colin Connor doing heavy lifting as both the adult men in the story and all of the fictional characters Elsie writes about.   Megan Behm's direction keeps the pace quick as we fly back and forth between fanfic and the real world of Elsie and Horatio, and projections by Veronica J. Lancaster help to keep the audience oriented in each world.

Annie Ottati as Elsie Photo credit: Teresa Castracane

If you don't understand the world of fandom, there is still much here to appreciate. Petri's main concern isn't with the specificities of fanfic,  but with storytelling in a broader sense. How do we find ourselves in stories? What do we gain from the power of creating a story and sharing it with others? How do we feature in the stories of others, the ones that we don't control? How do we tell a story when we don't have all the answers?  The restless urgency that consumes and destroys Hamlet in Shakespeare's play is a natural fit for the anxieties that plague us all as teenagers, and when you add in real fear about the adults that control your life at that age, Elsie, Horatio, and Ophelia seem like a natural extension of the play into our world. If the story of Hamlet can be about a lion cub, it certainly can encompass the tragedies of a teenage girl who likes to write stories about her favorite characters falling in love. I found Petri's play to be both tremendously funny and a welcome opportunity to see the value in the stories of young women's lives and the worlds they create, something which I think any audience can appreciate.

I also walked out of the theatre and started texting all of my local fandom friends because the second rule of fandom is to share your joy, and that's what I found in to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic.


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