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Rob Tennant says he glibly refers to his debut play, "Booksmart," as a story about income inequality, underemployment and debt with jokes.
The dark comedy takes place in the break room of a chain bookstore during the holiday retail season. Its subject is drawn from the customer-service lives of the playwright and many of the cast, and already seems to be resonating with local audiences, who have sold out the Plan-B Theatre Company's premiere run Thursday through Dec. 13. A handful of seats have been added to regularly scheduled shows and an additional performance at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 13.
Tennant wrote the story based upon his experiences in his 20s, when he was waiting tables and working retail jobs while freelancing as a theater critic for City Weekly. He spent years trying to get "an adult job." "I applied for literally hundreds of jobs," he says. "It was a hobby. I would come home and troll job sites, and it would take all evening, writing cover letters and résumés."
"Booksmart" tells the story of Casey, a 20-something bookstore worker, whom Tennant describes as "smarter than he lets on, not as smart as he thinks, and better at ideas than execution." After loudly complaining about low-wage jobs and the nation's income equality gap, Casey (Tyson Baker) decides to go on strike.
For Casey, a strike basically means explaining his complaints to his colleague and friend, Alex (Sarah Danielle Young), while camping out in the store's break room. As you might imagine, Alex finds his methods ineffective and counterproductive.
"Casey is a lot more like me then I'd like to admit, and maybe Alex is an aspirational version of how I thought I was," Tennant says.
Working retail jobs "is a constant assault on human dignity," he says, admitting he complained for years about the hours and low wages. "I complained about all kinds of things, but I never actually did anything about any of them," he writes in a Plan-B blog post about the play. "At least nothing productive. I didn't have the resources. I didn't have any support. I didn't even know where to start, and all of that frustration was further demoralizing.
"So now, I've been given the chance to finally do something about it: I'm having actors complain for me, onstage, to a paying audience. Progress!"
What sets apart the play is that it explores a generational story about 20-somethings facing the insecurity offered by their low-wage retail jobs.
"Thirty really is the new 20," says director Jerry Rapier, from observing theater artists juggling day jobs while pursuing creative careers at night. "It's not lack of drive or vision. I think our culture can't keep its promises anymore. There are less opportunities. Even people with advantages who are educated, thoughtful and smart even they can't get a job they can survive on."
Living hand-to-mouth, working retail jobs, was a kind of default for Tennant, just as it is for some of the "Booksmart" cast.
It's a particularly striking kind of synergy between real life and art for Anne Louise Brings, who spends her days working as an assistant manager at an area bookshop before rushing to rehearsal, where she plays Cindy, a young, "Hunger Games"-obsessed retail clerk at a chain bookstore.
Her character is lovable and very smart, "but she's young enough to still be eager to please," Brings says.
Cindy offers one of "Booksmart's" best lines, as she wishes the holiday-stressed customers would just leave them alone. "I've always thought this job would be really nice without them," Cindy says. "We'd have more time to play with the books."
In real life, instead of playing with books, bookstore workers mostly open boxes, Brings says, with a laugh.
"It's an emotional thing, a difficult thing, to have an onslaught of demanding, impatient people demanding things of you," says Tennant, who knows a co-worker expressed a similar sentiment to him, probably at the holidays. "Just because it's your job doesn't mean it's easy."
The warmth and the humor of the relationships among the play's co-workers make the script ring true, says Sarah Danielle Young, who has been involved in workshopping the play over the past year. "When I first read it, I was so surprised about how much it was exactly like my life," says the actor, a former hotel worker, now a receptionist, who still draws upon odd jobs to make ends meet.
Tennant had been taking notes about retail jobs for more than a decade, but was motivated to return to that material when he decided to write a script for the first David Ross Fetzer Foundation's Emerging Arts Competition in 2014. The foundation sponsors filmmaking and playwriting grants in honor of Fetzer, a local actor, musician and filmmaker who died at age 30 in 2012 of an accidental prescription-drug overdose.
Plan-B Theatre selected Tennant's script for its voice and wit, then spent a year helping him develop it through the company's playwriting lab.
That his first play earned an emerging artist grant and is receiving a production has been life-changing, Tennant says. Now, while working a day job as a communications writer at the University of Utah, on the side he's working on other scripts and has returned to an abandoned novel. "It made me a writer again in actuality, which I always said and hoped and thought I was," he says. "Now I'm actually doing it."
Laughing at customer-service life
Plan-B Theatre presents the premiere of Rob Tennant's "Booksmart," a dark comedy about the low-wage retail jungle of a chain store at Christmas.
When • Dec. 3-13: Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; additional performance at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 ($10 students); planbtheatre.org or 801-355-2787 (ARTS)
Running time • 70 minutes, no intermission