Broadway interview

This great new play reveals the dark side of growing up gay

The Daily Beast

February 18, 2024

In “you don’t have to do anything,” two queer teens find connection and disconnection in the early 2000s. The team behind the play discusses its complex themes and drama.

In some ways, you don’t have to do anything (Here Arts Center, to Feb. 23) shouldn’t feel so radical. Ryan Drake’s play ostensibly follows the many growing pains of a gay teenager called Teddy (Yaron Lotan), which seem to flow from his strange friendship with the slightly older teen Clark (Will Dagger). Clark seems more than strange; we are not sure when he is telling the truth or when he is lying, and later his intentions toward Teddy become darker—the consequences flowing into the adult Teddy’s life. Both actors are adults, not teens, which adds another edge to what we see played out.

The setting of this beautifully written, staged, and acted drama is the early 2000s; a time when personal computers are still oddities in bedrooms, and when queer teens (and anyone else with the tech) are beginning to communicate via AIM. What Teddy finds is a riotous world of sexual come-ons and flirtation—but what seems like a world of connection soon comes to feel like a world of disconnection, too. Andrea Abello plays Teddy’s friend Enid, who helps and does not help make him make sense of things, while Miles Elliot plays different men Teddy meets online and in real life.

Directed on a compact stage by Ryan Dobrin, and produced by Pulitzer finalist and playwright Will Arbery, you don’t have to do anything uses lit picture frames to convey the internet; our main focal point is Teddy’s bed—not just as a setting, but what it stands for—desire, violation, privacy, and identity. Cat Raynor’s design, and Bentley Heydt and Molly Tiede’s lighting are outstanding, vital stage presences.

The play is the very opposite of shows like Heartstopper, which seek to valuably affirm young queer identities, and assure its young audiences that “it gets better”; in you don’t have to do anything, the connection between the queer teens, and the effects of their actions on their lives, are darker and more mysterious. Things may get better, but with qualifications and codas—the play doesn’t trace a simply uplifting path to take its characters to the point of present day. The Daily Beast spoke to Lotan, Dagger, Drake, Dobrin, and Arbery about the play; this is condensed and edited from the conversation.

Yaron Lotan: Teddy goes through a lot in the play, and I approach it as a wild ride that I just have to stay on until the end.

Will Dagger: In terms of playing different ages and different layers of reality, so much of it is in the writing. It’s a ride we’re on, we play each moment truthfully; we reveal more of ourselves moment to moment. I mostly think of Clark as someone who’s lonely and wants to hang out. A lot of it is just relatable impulses. It’s written so well, his psychology is clear. He acts on impulses that in real life I wouldn’t.

The Daily Beast: The play feels like the queer teen flipside of Heartstopper?

Ryan Drake: It all started with a conversation with queer people; one admitted that they had basically jerked off with adult men when they were 13 years old. And then someone else was like: “Me too.” And I was like, “Oh, I did that too.” We all had the realization collectively that we were doing bad things on the internet because there was nowhere else to do it. The first time I jerked off with a stranger online was this guy, who—it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized this—had kind of sexually assaulted me at a sleepover. I didn’t want to write a play about that, but it seemed like the best vehicle to talk about it.

The play’s ending comes from me thinking: “Let’s go further.” The more I uncover memories, the more complicated and confusing it is; the more it feels like I dreamed them. The slipperiness of that felt exciting to me. I wrote the last five to 10 minutes of the play to challenge my own sense of memory.

People are more complicated than we like to think. It may feel good for me to paint that person, and the thing that happened to me, as the source of all my problems with intimacy as an adult. But then I think: “What role did I play?” It’s a question I wanted to ask, and I say that with all respect for survivors. It’s not like the sleepover didn’t happen, but what lay behind it? I also wrote this play with the idea of the “trauma play” in mind; why those plays are popular, why are we interested in them, what do we get out of them? Does the “trauma play” ultimately flatten trauma?

What happened to me happened in middle school when I was 13. We were two kids, so young, one kid hurting another kid. I work in an elementary school, and so I know and see how kids hurt each other and push each other’s boundaries all the time. The play shows an extreme example of this. Not everything in the play happened exactly as I remember it, and the ending—for me—shows how we narrativize our memories, and what that means in how we see ourselves, our past selves, and perceive other people.

I’m 32 now, and if you had asked me if I had found writing it healing when I had finished the draft when I was 28, I would have said no. I remember people laughed at certain points at the first reading, and of course some parts are funny. But every laugh at that first reading felt like a dagger. As time has gone on, it has become easier to watch. In this production, I have experienced it in a new way. At the second preview performance, Yaron’s performance took my breath away, and separated me from the past. What happened to me will always be with me, but I certainly feel more distance than ever because of this play.

For me, the internet both connects us and disconnects us. It helps us create masks for ourselves, which are very freeing. I wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t had those chatrooms as a kid. I was able to try on personas, and it was good. It was exciting, sometimes scary, and sometimes addictive—sometimes all of those things.

Ryan Dobrin: When it came to adults playing young people, we talked as a production about how events on stage take place through Teddy’s mind and lens. The characters who are not Teddy are not just themselves, but his conjuring and projections of these people in the past. Clark and Teddy never see each other again after Clark is expelled from school, but physically Clark is present through their AIM conversations and phone calls, and what Teddy imagines of Clark.

Will Dagger: At that age you’re really clocking and comparing your own level of maturation with those around you. Clark is two years older than Teddy, and so me being an adult conveys to the audience “someone older” in an effective way.

Ryan Dobrin: It also meant Will didn’t have to shave his mustache off! These characters are 12, 13 years old, and we do something later in the play to remind the audience of this. It would be easy to fall into the pattern of watching adults doing terrible things to each other; it’s good to remind the audience these characters do not have fully formed frontal lobes.

The Daily Beast: The space is so intimate; the audience is very close to you, the actors. How does that feel?

Yaron Lotan: At yesterday’s performance during the sleepover scene, an audience member stepped out. I heard every footstep. It’s a very intimate space, and as actors we love the validation of audiences. Generally, the only tangible thing we hear is laughter, but in this space we are hearing much more subtle reactions.

Will Dagger: There was some laughter from that audience during the sleepover scene, which we had not experienced before. It felt really weird. We get that different people react to their own discomfort, or experiences, in different ways. Sometimes you hear people letting out an unwilling laugh as if air is escaping them. But this was raucous laughter. So, depending on how you were receiving the play, or what experiences you had had, I can imagine someone stepping out being surrounded by that laughter at that moment.

Yaron Lotan: So much in this play connects to my own experience of growing up gay in the early 2000s—those moments of coming out, of trauma, around self-esteem, feeling isolated, all of these things. I had a hard time, as many of us did at those ages. It’s quite easy to connect to those moments—there’s actual experiences to tap into. I have re-experienced some things through the play, and shared lots of anecdotes through the rehearsal process. It’s been so rewarding to get to rediscover these things. All of those experiences were painful, so to be able to use that pain for what I love to do and in a way that feels creatively productive—that in itself has made it all the better.

The Daily Beast: Will, why did you choose this as your producing debut?

Will Arbery: It wasn’t something I was looking for. The “Ryans” (Drake and Dobrin) asked me to do it. I read the play, and was just very taken with its bravery and quest for truth-telling. True honesty is very difficult, and we get in our own ways pretty expertly—especially when it comes to looking back as an adult to what it was like being a middle school teenager. It’s very hard, very bold, to get in there and find real autonomy and accountability—and this play does it. I was honored they would ask me to be involved.

Ryan Dobrin: I want to uplift the immense gratitude I have for Will’s brilliant brain. He was able to see the play as a whole, and be the best artistic mentor and consultant. He really helped to solve and fix some things.

The Daily Beast: The play feels like the opposite to the affirming, it’s going-to-be-ok, it-gets-better messaging of Heartstopper and other LGBTQ fare aimed at, or about queer-identifying teens.

Ryan Drake: It wasn’t intentional, though I had spent some time nannying a 13-year-old kid exploring their sexuality who loves Heartstopper. I couldn’t quite connect to it. I asked myself why that was. I found it frustrating. I love that Heartstopper is happening so positively for that kid, and others. But, for me, those years were about a lot of alone time in the basement feeling bad about myself. I wanted to show that. Another important element of writing the play was that I had felt like I couldn’t name what happened to me as sexual assault, as I had only seen sexual assault portrayed in a certain way. In the play I wanted to show how it was for me—something that was more grey—and still naming it as sexual assault. I hope that is empowering, rather than triggering, for people who come to see the play.

Ryan Dobrin: As important it is to have work that shows what it’s like to be a queer teenager today in 2024, it is so different to the experiences we had when we were young. This play is, begrudgingly, a period piece—it takes place in this very specific little period of time when it was unusual to have a computer, the internet, in your room. Back then it was a new thing—and long before we had a deep understanding of the dangers of social media and many of the things Teddy goes through in this play that we now have an awareness of.

For those of us who were young in this specific time, discovering our queerness, with our computers, with boys in middle school who may have been straight, or like the character of Enid (Abello), a person of color in a primarily white institution—it’s a little pocket of time until now I had not seen portrayed anywhere. Obviously, there’s so much that is hard about being a young queer person today, but we wanted to show this time where we struggled too. The play feels kind of dangerous and exciting, and it’s been great to see audiences responding to it for what it is.

Ryan Drake: There are so many different queer experiences, and I think it’s great and important that shows like Heartstopper have such an important purpose. For me, they can feel flattening, and so I hope there are other, more, stories to tell, that can add more texture to the stories we tell of both young and older queer people. As white gay people, I also feel we are a pretty toxic bunch, and in my work it is important to me to not just hit the positives, but also to challenge notions of queer identity.