If You Can Get to Buffalo, the latest offering by Station North theater company The Acme Corporation, premieres tonight (more info here), and takes as its subject the weird world of early Internet culture:  The world’s first social network premiered in 1993 on the newly minted World Wide Web as a virtual mansion comprised entirely of text. It was called LambdaMOO.  If You Can Get to Buffalo explores the rise and fall of this new utopia and the attempt of its creators to deal with the sinister puppet master that brought it crashing down during a wild party of virtual revelry.

Baltimore Fishbowl spoke with New York playwright Trish Harnetiaux about 1990s cyberculture, Baltimore’s theater scene, and what a play can do that television can’t:

The play is based on a 1993 Village Voice article about the first reported cyber rape. How did you first come across the article, and what about it made you think the subject matter could be transformed into a piece of theater?

Truth is I totally forget how I came across the article but I do know I was interested in the early days of the Internet – the language people used when it was new, the impact of never-before-encountered social situations, and the opportunity it offered to individuals. Something that we’re continually aware of is that we essentially know how the story of the Internet “ends,” now that it’s 20 years after the incident we’re exploring – and that’s definitely had an impact on how we’re telling it.

Early 1990s cyber culture is so weird. Discuss.

Totally weird right?  In the 90s it was all about possibility. No one was really clear on what the function or purpose was of the Internet, and when I say “no one,” I mean people like me – not super tech focused, banging away on Brother word processors, annoyed that my university made me get an email and that I had to stand in some library terminal to access it.  When we started really examining the early online communities – like LambdMOO (which is where the play is set) – it was a fascinating look at these social pioneers that grasped immediately how exciting this was, but had no idea what the rules or repercussions would be.

How does this play connect to your previous work?

I’ve always been interested in perception.  How two people that have a shared experience can walk away with extremely different takes.

TV and movies seem to have a hard time depicting online culture in an old-media format. Is there something about theater as a medium that makes it better at addressing or exploring computers?

Yes.  I think that with theater there’s the opportunity to break form and work with time and place and language in such interesting ways that it actually has the advantage depicting online culture over TV and movies, they tend to rely on more traditional storytelling.  In a play a year can pass in a line, and you can travel from Seattle to Australia by crossing the stage.

What kinds of theatrical experiences do you try to create?

Experiential ones.  It’s more interesting to me to evoke a feeling through a play.  It’s exciting when as an audience member, you’re caught up in a play, in an emotional reaction to a play, but also have a tough time exactly articulating WHY you feel a certain way.  I’m less concerned with any sort of tidy storytelling.

You’re a New York-based playwright, but the play is premiering in Baltimore. How did that come about? How is doing theater outside of New York different than productions in the city?

Eric Nightengale, a NYC director, is a member of the Baltimore based company The Acme Corporation.  These guys (Eric, Lola B. Pierson, Stephen Nunns, Yuri Urnov) have been putting on really interesting work over the past year or so, and this is Eric’s slot in their season.  He and I have been trying to figure out how and where to do this play for a few years now, and this was a perfect opportunity. It’s not been without its challenges, of course – both Eric and I are commuting from New York every week – but it’s been such an awesome experience to get to know a community outside of my own and one that’s in a city with so much interesting theater going on.   It’s a different vibe (thank God), and I really think that the freedom from all the obstacles of doing a show in New York has helped Eric and me really find the play.  Just having the time, without the distractions of working in the city that you live, has been crucial. The actors are great, the venue at St. Mark’s is amazing, and I really love that crepe place on Charles.

Why should people come see this show?

I really believe we’ve made a unique show that; besides its appealing run time of 70 minutes will prove for a wild ride, and definitely some lively post show drink conversation.

If You Can Get to Buffalo runs Thursday/Friday/Saturday this weekend and next weekend at St. Mark’s Church in Station North. Buy tickets here!