'Sex with Strangers' is more than shock value as ASU alumni explore technology and relationships

From the title alone, a play called "Sex With Strangers" is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Add the fact that it has a two-person cast and opens in a secluded cabin during a snowstorm, and the audience already has a pretty good idea of what is going to take place.

But as the play opens at the Herberger Theater Center this week in a collaboration between Arizona Theatre Company and Stray Cat Theatre, actor Tyler Eglen is quick to attest that the play is about more than just physical intimacy.

"The show isn't crude, raunchy nor lewd," said Eglen. "It's just about two real people. I hope the audience goes on that journey with us."

The journey follows characters Ethan (Eglen) and Olivia (Heather Lee Harper), who end up as the only guests snowed in at a remote bed and breakfast in Michigan. Olivia is ten years Ethan's senior, but they have one thing in common: a shared passion for writing. She has published a novel without much success, while he is a famous playboy blogger. With no Internet connection or phone service, the two strike up conversation. One thing leads to another and soon they are embroiled in a love affair that reveals the difference between who people claim to be online and who they truly are.

The play focuses on how relationships are formed in the digital age. When most of our generation's first impressions are made on a screen, individuals have immense control over the image and likeness they project online, director Ron May said.

"People today have a huge social media presence, and you can find so much information about them before you meet them face to face," May, who is also the Artistic Director at Stray Cat Theatre, said. "It's easy to jump to conclusions. That poses the question of 'What's more true? What the person's putting out online, or what you see when you're in the room with them?' That part is crazy fascinating to me."

That was a large part of May's interest in directing "Sex With Strangers" after reading the script last year. He shortlisted the production for Stray Cat Theatre to produce. The script also caught the attention of Arizona Theatre Company (ATC). However, when the ATC had the opportunity to add the Broadway hit "Disgraced" to its season, they arranged a collaboration with Stray Cat Theatre for "Sex With Strangers." 

"(Stray Cat Theatre) operates relatively modestly, so we've never had to fill this large of a stage with technical elements such as the sets, sound and lights," May said. "The technical demands are a lot more than we'd normally take on." 

For the actors, the biggest challenge has been to memorize a two-hour play with only two characters.

"Every actor has different memorization techniques, but for this show I feel like I've pulled out all of them," said Harper, who plays Olivia. "It's very grammatically specific. I have read it, read it and repeated it while staring at a wall, and I've written it all out. I've done this thing where I write the first letter of each word, and I have people run lines for me. It's mostly just repetition and a lot of time."

Time is a precious commodity in the theater. Rehearsals for the play started a month ago, and the cast and crew haven't let a second go to waste.

"I have a regular full-time job on top of this. I run lines in the car with my book, on my lunch break, or just anywhere I can get 10 free minutes," Eglen said. "Acting is a hard job. We all have other jobs, but this is what we're passionate about, so we make it work."

That passion was developed on common ground — the ASU Tempe campus, to be exact. Eglen, Harper and May each graduated from ASU (in 2014, 2004, and 2000, respectively). They all cite their academic career at ASU as an integral part of how they got where they are today.

"Even though we were all there at different times, we know a lot of the same people and we have reference points. We came into the room (for "Sex With Strangers") with a common language, which doesn't always happen," Harper said. "We're like a little ASU family. Super cheesy but true."

"Sex With Strangers" previews Sept. 24 to 25 and officially runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 11. Tickets range from $21 to $61 and can be purchased online or at the box office at the Herberger Theater Center, which is located at 222 E Monroe St. Phoenix.

ASU students also have access to $10 student rush tickets. An hour before every show, any unsold tickets can be purchased for the reduced price with a valid student I.D. On Oct. 3, the 4 p.m. matinee is a "pay-what-you-can" show, where tickets can be purchased for any price.

Related Links:

ASU MainStage drops the boys to the curb, adding seven women playwrights for the 2015-2016 theater season

'The Perfect Guy' is anything but perfectly made


Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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