Five years in the future, four nerdy friends try to survive an apocalypse brought on by nuclear war, but the terror becomes less about the bombs and more about what people do to each other. Scum, currently running through August 18th at The Producers Club, is a new play by Sarah Shear, who also stars in the production. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Shear about why Scum is set in 2023, the challenge of writing roles for oneself, and how the Doomsday Clock inspired the play.
Culturadar: What made you want to write a play about nerds?
Sarah Shear: The motivation for writing the play started when the 2018 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists updated their Doomsday Clock. They have a Doomsday Clock that predicts how close humanity is to destroying ourselves through our own technology. The clock in January 2018 was two minutes to midnight, which is the closest we’ve been to midnight since the Cold War. I have a group chat with my gamer friends who shared it with me and were like, “What’s in your go-bag? I'm going to a city shelter. You don’t have a machete?” The characters in the play are people who play these video games who are living out these apocalyptic scenarios through them. Having them in the play just fits really nicely. Scum is really an apocalypse story about apocalypse stories and how we would survive it if we were to live through it.
CR: How much is this play inspired by the current political climate?
SS: I don’t know everything about politics, I try to stay informed but it's very new to me. Things like the Doomsday Clock, that’s something that all of sudden I could understand and was like, oh my god, that's how bad it is right now. One of the characters in the play, she is very much like, the best way to operate is to give love to everyone, whereas other characters think the best way is to love selectively or it’s to love yourself. That’s politics I understand. We do talk about nuclear war all the time, but we’re not fighters, we’re not politicians, we’re not armed forces. How do our personal politics interact in the world and how do they reflect how we operate in these scenarios? If everyone thought in that way, it would make a big change. You can’t ignore what’s going on with global warming, that every day there’s another headline about nuclear war, and that people are being pit against each other, even family members and friends. We’re peeling back the layers of the scum that lies within all of us. It’s important to address those things instead of ignore them.
CR: Why did you set the play only 5 years from now?
SS: The play isn’t saying here’s what’s happening tomorrow, too late. It’s saying, hey, this could happen in five years if we're not careful. The story follows twentysomethings, which means in 2018 they would have been 20 years old, not paying their rent yet but not totally relying on their parents. They’re just learning how to think for themselves. It’s interesting to think about these characters that have grown up in this time. The way that I write is always like, there’s not a lesson learned so much as a question asked. The question that it’s asking is, there’s this problem in the world and how do you change it? It’s an immediate call to action—no one can ever predict when catastrophe is going to happen. This was my attempt at preparing for something that you can never actually prepare for.
CR: You both wrote the play and perform in it--how do those two roles feed off each other?
SS: I started writing because I kept getting cast as the funny best friend and I could not get out of that box. There’s so much more out there for women as full human beings, but no one was writing the roles that made me say, “Oh, that makes sense for me,” so I decided to write them myself. It feels great to use my skills. I was getting so tired of just being told to smile more, to stand there and smile. This is the first time I’ve performed one of the roles I’ve written. It’s so fun to be in the trenches with the other actors trying to figure this crazy stuff out. Writing a character I love and getting to play her is still a challenge. I’ll be like, “Sarah, why’d you do that to me?” As a 25-year-old woman, it’s been wonderful to grow through this show.
CR: What or who have been your influences as a writer, especially for this piece?
SS: I have two big ones. One is Mindy Kaling. I love everything about Mindy Kaling. I read her books, her TV scripts, her plays. I totally identify with her. I had always been writing plays, but she put into perspective for me that you have to create your own work for yourself. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, is Sarah Kane. She’s very visceral. She has this one play about the trauma of war—she doesn’t want the audience to look at the trauma of war, she wants them to feel it. You do not leave a Sarah Kane play feeling like you did not just live in someone else’s shoes. And nothing wraps up in a bow. Her plays usually feature women, and to see them falling apart at the seams—there’s something that’s powerful about that for me.
CR: What effect do you hope this show will have on the audience?
SS: The best part about this show is that every time we’ve done a public reading of it, people want to talk about it. It affects people. All I have to say is that it’s a horror story about a woman trapped in a room with three men, and people get excited about it. What Scum does is it allows people to look at very small problems in the world that are easily overlooked. It asks people to look at what things have been normalized in our culture that seem so harmless, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do harm. People are able to observe them and ask what the root of it is, and that root might not be very nice at all. The play makes us take a look at ourselves: do we want to be good or just good enough?
CR: Why do you call it a horror story?
SS: It’s so happy and light until shit hits the fan, and then it really hits the fan. We can’t really call it a comedy or a tragedy or a drama. We can only really call it a horror story. There’s a huge element of suspense, and once things go down and you are in the bunker with them, it’s scary.
Scum runs through August 18th at The Producers Club, 358 W 44th Street.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.