Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls, and other stories

My calendar was full for a while working on Cabaret for ELOPE Musical Theatre (timely and chilling and also entertaining), but now I have a little more time for watching theatre as well as helping to make it.

Two weeks ago I attended the monthly Script Salon organized by Alberta Playwrights Network and Playwrights Guild of Canada, because the new work to be read was Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls.  It was wonderful and it made me cry.  Kristin Johnson, Rebecca Sadowski, Jayce Mackenzie, and Karina Cox played students in a girls’ junior-high robot-building club.  Stage directions were read by assistant director Patricia Cerra.

The playwright said in the talkback session afterwards that he had tried to consistently have his characters in this play choose to be kind.  I also had the impression that the playwright was kind to the characters, making them quirky and interesting but not at all parodies or objects of amusement.  And there was still enough challenge and drama in their lives to make it interesting listening/viewing – even in a staged read.  The wide social gaps between Grade Nine soccer-star (Johnston) and naive less-popular-twin Grade Seven (Mackenzie), between the student council president (Sadowski) and the new kid (Cox) were accepted by all the characters.  Watching them awkwardly navigate the group norms and transition to productive teamwork and cautious friendship made me happy.  The premise of the story – a continually-absent teacher-advisor, a school rule against cell phone use – gives us a situation where the four girls have to interact with each other while they work on the project.  And the incidental conversations ring true – about embarrassing parents, about annoying siblings, about various understandings of menstruation, about teachers and classmates and dreams of the future.  I loved that the characters are not preoccupied with boys, romance, or sex – this script passes the Bechdel-Wallace test easily, with the few conversations about boys mostly limited to the problems of having brothers or the ways in which boys in a mixed-gender school would take over the building project.

I thought that it was a play for adults, but that young people of the characters’ ages or five years older would also enjoy it and feel like it was a fair portrayal.  In an epilogue, we hear not only how the team fares at the robot competition/festival, but how each of the characters goes on in science and in life.

It reminded me a little bit of the wonderful 1999 movie October Sky, about boys from a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1957 who pursue rocket-building.  And it also reminded me of the recent movies Eighth Grade and Booksmart, films about present-day bright feminist girls navigating social challenges at school that show their young characters in respectful ways.  In both those films, there are no villains, nobody being gratuitously mean.  The protagonists get embarrassed, and they get into awkward and potentially risky situations, but they get themselves out of them.  They aren’t stories where the writers punish the girls for aiming too high, for acting on the crush, for going to the party with more popular kids.  In both films, things don’t quite work out as hoped for the protagonists, but they aren’t disastrous.  And after I saw Eighth Grade, I realized that there are an awful lot of stories where the plot punishes the outsider girl with humiliation, with slut-shaming, with sexual assault. It’s awful that I’m impressed when that doesn’t happen in a story.  But it doesn’t always happen in life, and it shouldn’t always happen in stories.

Maybe we’re into a new kind of stories about teenage girls, and I like them.   Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls is a good one.  I hope to see it on stage soon.

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