For Philly playwright Ellie Brown, having her fourth grade diary not only discovered but read aloud is the stuff of dreams — and I’m not talking the horrifying “showing up to school in your underwear” variety. She’s happily sharing her pre-adolescent secrets with the world in her upcoming play, Dear Diary, Bye. And, as if that doesn’t already sound crazy enough, the dialogue will be performed by a 22-year-old man. Wha?!
“This play came to be when my father was visiting last March for my birthday. I pulled out the diary for fun, and he and another male friend of mine took turns reading it out loud in their baritone voices. I had tears streaming down my face, and thought, ‘This needs to be on stage.’”
When she wrote Dear Diary, Bye and finally handed over the text to strangers, it wasn’t easy. She first workshopped it during last year’s SoLow Fest, a process she explains as being particularly cringe-worthy at times. But the experience reminded her that transparency is key to her artistic expression. “I’ve always felt, in any artwork that I produce, that the juicy stuff comes from revealing something. In doing that, one has to be open to vulnerability,” she says.
This openness is what connected her to Arlen Hancock, the 22-year-old playing her 9-year-old self in Dear Diary, Bye. They met at an open mic at Quig’s Pub, where “I was reading some books I made [in the first grade] about my parents getting divorced, and he was reading love poems to a high school girlfriend. I think I really bummed the audience out and he made everyone go ‘awww’,” says Brown.
Hancock may face more of a challenge winning over the audience in Dear Diary, Bye. Just think: a 22-year-old man chiming on about schoolyard crushes and the fear of getting cooties. But Brown says it won’t be as strange as it sounds. “[Director Seth Reichgott] has been really great about steering Arlen in a direction to make the diary his own, so he is not pretending to be a 9-year-old girl.” She hopes the gender twist will teach us to eschew conventional, rigid definitions of male-female identity and age. And who knows, you might walk away wondering if 9-year-old girls know a lot more about the human experience than they’re given credit.
Dear Diary, Bye runs Aprith 4th through 13th at Plays and Players Theater. More information here.