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Q&A: Seth Bockley on His New Advice-Columnist Noir ‘Ask Aunt Susan’

The local playwright talks about his Goodman Theatre debut, which channels “Miss Lonelyhearts” for a satirical crime caper in an online netherworld.

Alex Stage as Aunt Susan in Ask Aunt Susan   Photo: Liz Lauren

 With Ask Aunt Susan, playwright Seth Bockley takes a noirish trip through an Internet netherworld roiling with double identities, digital fantasies, broken hearts and needy masses searching for meaning via mouse clicks. Focusing on a young man who becomes an electronic messiah while posing online as a female advice columnist, Ask Aunt Susan marks the 32-year-old Logan Square resident’s Goodman debut. We caught up with Bockley to talk about his own experiences falling down the Internet rabbit hole, and why Aunt Susan—inspired by an 81-year-old novella—is such a contemporary phenomenon.

Ask Aunt Susan focuses on a young man whose online identity as a female advice columnist becomes this massive pop culture phenomenon, almost a messiah figure. Where’d you come up with the germ of that story?

There’s this wonderful novella, [1933’s] Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathaniel West. It’s this dark, short, expressionistic satire of contemporary culture in America, of urban alianation and the materialism and excesses of the roaring ’20s. The book is this entire a stylized world, quite dark, almost like film noir.

It set in almost 90 years ago, but it’s the story of a young man getting lost in the media - something that’s happening to so many people right now. I certainly know what it’s like. We’re in an age where we think as much, maybe more, about digital connections as we do about the real people in our lives.

I haven’t done an adaptation of the book. But I was inspired by the premise. I wanted to take what is awful and wonderful about the Internet and twist, exaggerate it. I feel like this play is partly a strange, satirical crime caper with a lot of noir to it. But it’s also about religion and technology and modernity.

What did you mean you know what it’s like to get lost in the media yourself?

When I really got into the ‘net it was the early 1990s. I found all these bulletin boards and communities, people interested in the same stuff I was interested in. I had an identity on online from a relatively early age and I became aware that there’s this double consciousness you develop. It’s an exaggeration to say you’re living two lives. But I’m familiar with the irony of being distracted from real life by digital phenomenon. I feel like that distraction is becoming more and more the reality of our lives.

Why was it important that Aunt Susan actually be a male character?

I enjoyed the psychosexual dimensions of that. I found that his issues with his own masculinity would come out more if I confronted him with this female identification. I found that to be interesting terrain.

The Aunt Susan advice column starts small and then turns into this landslide—like the whole world is looking for affirmation. Are you commenting on the pathetic herd mentality?

No. These people aren’t pathetic. The play sees them as the genuinely suffering people who are seeking something outside of their immediate surroundings to reach out to. But at the same time, the mass neediness is a send-up of a need that our society seems to have. We have these cult figures or pseudo-religious leaders or self-help gurus come along—Oprah, the Secret—who make people feel good because they affirm them or claim they can fix you.

What does the play say about the neediness of people to get affirmation from some unseen digital person instead of the actual person in their actual life?

I think that kind of loneliness is tied to our consumer culture. It’s not just about keeping up with the Joneses, it’s deeper than that. We’re wired from early on to feel like, not just that we want better, more things all the time, but that if we’re not out actively consuming, there’s something wrong with us. If you’re not out shopping, using your disposable income, you’re not quite American. I see loneliness as related to that. It’s part of always wanting more, of not being satisfied with the relationships you have. Feeling like there should be more in the world for you. More people. More things. More comfort.

But in Ask Aunt Susan, the supposed answer to that mass neediness is a total hoax. Aunt Susan doesn’t exist.

I think there’s this funny little flip that happens in the play: Aunt Susan the columnist is built on a fraud, but as a phenomenon it becomes something authentic. People start reaching beyond themselves and hearing each other’s stories even though of course there’s still—always—a lot of phonies and fakes and con people in this world. I think the play contains both of those truths. So in the end, Aunt Susan unleashes a positive force on the world. She becomes like this ongoing, weird self-help book club event where everyone is confessing and comforting each other. From a cult of personality, she becomes something bigger and stronger than one person.

Am I reading things into the play, or does she become almost a religious figure?

She does. We come from a really religious society, more so than other parts of the western world. I think we’ve retained a lot of our religious obsessions. I wanted to see religion would match up with technology. What would happen if those two things collided.

So does Aunt Susan bring people together or drive them apart?

I think both. I want the play to help us see both things. That’s what I believe. Just as the city in West’s book, the city is a dark and mysterious place, a double-edged sword. People can be really isolated in the city, but on the other hand, they’re living in this vibrant, amazing place where there’s such diversity. The internet is the same way, it can be a gateway to so much insight, but at the same time, you can fall down the rabbit hole. Get lost in your device.

Do you see Aunt Susan as cynical or hopeful?

I definitely don’t feel this is a cynical play. I feel that it shows weaknesses—all the characters have extreme weaknesses. It’s noir-ish in that with noir, you always have this anti-hero going down a dark path, meeting all kinds of creepy people on the way. But when you look at those people who are extremely selfish or self-absorbed or greedy, you see the other parts of humanity—the good, hopeful parts, in stark relief.

Are you hoping audiences leave the play pondering anything in particular?

When we did the workshops, one of the things that really excited me was how many different topic the audience wanted to explore. One night, they got into a vigorous, vigorous discussion of technology and whether it was ruining the world or making it great. The next night, it was all about psychology and Jungian archetypes. The third night, they wanted to talk about gender and relationships. It was three nights and three totally different discussions—that’s what I want.

Ask Aunt Susan runs May 24 through June 26 in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. For ticket information, go to goodmantheatre.org.

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