In 1993, I had read every single book in the Babysitters Club series by Ann M. Martin, including spinoff books and special edition mysteries. A devoted fan, I tried to emulate Claudia Kishi’s cool artist fashion sense and tried to make my handwriting look like Dawn Schaefer’s. I attended an author event and nearly cried when I got to tell Ann Martin how much I loved her and I even tried my hand at fan fiction (a piece of BSC/Sweet Valley High crossover fic that I really wish I had kept for posterity).
This might have been my entrance point to fandom but it wasn’t my last – in high school I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and experienced internet fandom for the first time (you don’t know intense until you’ve stared down a message board of Buffy-Spike vs. Buffy-Angel OTPs), and I have never been able to resist a YA Dystopian trilogy. For awhile, a fellow YA-fan and I blogged extensively about our love of young adult literature (see some examples here and here), and when I got married last year, my best friends threw me a Divergent themed wedding shower (Divergent Bride. It was brilliant).
So when we decided to put Fandom in our season this year, I immediately felt a connection to the community. When our artistic team started holding workshops and talking to people at fan events, that connection grew even deeper.
It’s not to say I’m an expert – as with all of us, there has been a lot of learning about the fandoms we don’t already have a connection to. In the last few months I’ve started watching Dr. Who, Game of Thrones and Supernatural, started listening to fan podcasts, watched a lot of YouTube and read a TON of fan fiction. I love fan fiction, actually – I love seeing the ways in which being a consumer of an arts experience can lead to becoming a creator. I love fan art, and seeing the things that I love being re-imagined by other artists. I love hearing people talk about their fandoms, their OTPs and their headcanons. It’s smart and thoughtful – the way we talk about things that matter to us and the way we connect over things that we have in common.
But when our artistic team decided to create a play about fan culture and the way young people participate in it, we initially were met with some surprise about the topic. After all, since our founding, Rising Youth Theatre has been committed to creating plays that reflect the stories and experiences of young people in our community. This primarily takes the form of social justice work, and it is this work that our company is passionate about. We have done plays about immigration, about young people in foster care, about the high school dropout rate – all major issues for our community that have a direct impact on young people. But I sincerely believe that, the inclusion of this play, of these stories of the fan experience into that collection is a natural fit. A story about how young people build community around their fandoms, a story about what it means to really love something and connect with others who feel the same way – is an incredibly powerful, youth-driven story. We are supporting our mission by telling a story that reflects the authentic experience of young people in our community. And it has led us into some significant conversations. We’ve talked about everything in rehearsal from our personal OTPs (One True Pairing) to the fallout from Gamergate and how we can build safe, inclusive spaces online. In many ways, the entrance point for conversation about shared fandoms has allowed us to jump more naturally into deep, challenging dialogue in a safe and thoughtful space.
What’s more, fan spaces, on the internet and IRL (in real life) are usually youth-driven spaces. Telling this story has allowed the adult artists in the room to step back, listen and learn. Actually, we’re all learning. Fandoms are for everyone. But they also give us an entrance point to connect with and learn from each other. This can happen across lines that divide us, bridging differences and challenging perceptions. Fandoms are powerful.
One of the lines from the play early on is “survival is insufficient,” uttered by the Chancellor of a bleak dystopian society as she looks to rebuild. It’s a Star Trek reference, that was also heavily featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning Station Eleven last year. So in addition to being a multilayered fan reference, I find this also to be an incredibly powerful statement, and one that makes a case for fan culture, for art, for needing something beyond just getting from one day to the next. If survival is insufficient, if we also need art, music, writing, and story, then we also need people to care about these things. Fandoms have the power to bring people together and the power to inspire a new generation of creators. We hope you’ll join us in June to be part of this conversation, to tell us about your fandoms, and to learn from our brilliant ensemble of young artists. We hope you’ll wear a costume (because if you do, you’ll get in free). And we hope you’ll talk about the show and it’s themes online and off.