Local playwright prepares his new show My Electric Life at the Harrisburg Improv Theatre
[Note: At the time this story was written for the March issue of Fly Magazine, My Electric Life was scheduled for a March 28 debut. It has since been rescheduled for a summer opening.]
Three years ago, Paul Hood started noticing something unusual as he went about his everyday routine.
The Harrisburg native and local writer says he was experiencing a period in his life when he felt his only avenues of communication were through the Internet or his cell phone. Friends were having hour-long conversations with him by text message, when they could have had the same conversation face-to-face in five minutes.
Hood, now 41, began to think about modern forms of communication and why people are more apt to interact through an electronic device rather than talking face-to-face.
His musings about modern conversations led him to his newest artistic creation, My Electric Life – a dark comedic drama that will make its debut this summer at Harrisburg Improv Theatre. [Editor’s note: The show was originally scheduled to debut in April but has been postponed.]
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“If I start thinking about something for more than a week, it becomes a play,” Hood says. “It becomes like a game where I’m trying to find the best answer or the best solution, and then I’ll start shaping the characters. Before I know it, I’ll have 20 pages of a question I posed that becomes this whole story or idea, and then I’ll work from that.”
My Electric Life examines the lives of three characters – Manny, Ari and William – who are dealing with different forms of Internet addiction and their struggle to have real human interactions rather than just living in cyberspace. The hour-long play is structured with a simple backdrop design and monologues that portray each character’s problems, followed by a series of therapy sessions (with the therapist played by Dana Kinsey, who also directs the play).
To get into the minds of the characters, Hood says he immersed himself in the world of the Internet and social media for months. He would spend hours looking at Facebook to see the types of things people were posting about their lives. He also spent time sitting at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, surfing the Internet and watching people to see the types of emotions they were expressing as they sat in front of their laptops or on their iPhones.
Hood’s research led him to create the character of Manny (played by Jurdan Payne). Manny is dealing with an addiction to Internet porn, using his online life as a way to escape his guilt after the death of a friend.
While some men lose themselves by watching sports or drinking too much, Hood says, he wanted to take a different approach by looking at an addiction that is becoming more prevalent among all ages, immersing himself in the seedy side of the Internet.
Ari (played by Meghan Morrison) is a hopeless romantic with a steely persona. Obsessed with online dating, she’s looking for someone to welcome into her personal life, all while dealing with underlying trust issues that stem from her lying father.
“There’s three things I feel people look for on the Internet, and those things are sex, love and to lie.”
Hood says he took many of his own experiences with online dating and projected them onto a female character, finding a woman’s perspective for his own encounters. He signed up for several dating sites and even went on a few dates with people he met online.
“Every experience I would have online, I would inject that into what Ari was going through,” Hood says. “It was a lot of fun for me to examine that and write it from the female perspective.”
William (played by Jim Lewis) has been diagnosed with an unknown illness, and his hypochondria and a tendency to lie and exaggerate have made his condition even worse. Hood did not elaborate on the backstory, but he says William is engaging in behavior online that could land him in real trouble if discovered.
Hood says he doesn’t like sugarcoating his characters, and his goal is to try to keep them as honest as he can.
Through the course of research for My Electric Life, Hood says he learned a great deal about himself and how others create their own pseudo-persona through social media. He says the “Facebook person” that individuals make for themselves by posting pictures and “liking” status updates does not translate to the actual persona of the individual.
Hood found that people are constantly exaggerating their lives on social media through posting pictures from places they’ve never been, with a growing segment of people becoming depressed when comparing their own online lives to their friends who are getting married, having children or going on trips.
My Electric Life took Hood around two weeks to write, putting all his ideas down on the computer screen. He wrote the play from his spare bedroom he turned into his writing workshop, and went about developing, revising and honing the play to figure out what each character was trying to say.
The two-week span was the fastest Hood’s ever written a play. He says he usually writes a play over the course of three months, spending his summer vacations pulling together new ideas. (Hood is a paraeducator in the Susquehanna Township School District and also does workshops on playwriting for school groups.)
Hood says he has written around 12 different plays of varying lengths for more than a decade, including the recent play I Am Foster Bates for Lancaster’s annual 24 Hour Plays series and a staged reading of his work, The Sequin Royale – which deals with a Vietnam War vet struggling with PTSD – for the Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg.
“I like the dirty side of theater – dirty, gritty plays. And I’m trying to examine things like the stuff people aren’t used to seeing in Central PA.”
The lure of the theater has long called Hood, who got his start doing creative writing as a high school student at the Harrisburg Arts Magnet School (now the Capital Area School for the Arts) in the early ’90s. He says originally he was more interested in writing short fiction, but teachers and peers told him his dialogue in his stories was very interesting and believable. He says he started writing “small, awful screenplays,” but through practice and encouragement from other playwrights in the region, he has honed his craft. He’s currently a member of the Playwrights Alliance of Pennsylvania (PAPA), a local organization that meets to work on various plays.
“I think I’m still in that learning-process phase a little bit,” Hood says. “I know I’ve written some stuff that’s pretty solid, but I’m still learning.”
Hood is quick to list several favorite playwrights, including Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), August Wilson (Fences) and Neil Simon (The Odd Couple). However, he says he has an appreciation for contemporary playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat) who are writing tough, urban plays that deal with social issues and flawed characters.
It’s those characteristics that helped Hood construct My Electric Life, and he says it’s his goal each time he writes something new to create something fresh and different that the local theater community has never seen.
“I like the dirty side of theater,” Hood says. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of a few musicals here and there. But I like dirty, gritty plays. And I’m trying to examine things like the stuff people aren’t used to seeing in Central PA.”