Late last year Twitter posed a very serious question: “Pick a movie. Keep one actor. The rest are played by Muppets.” The query rippled into this summer and had become one of those threads that eased the intensity of a global pandemic and civil unrest. Oh, how convenient it would be if we could recast real life right now. R. Eric Thomas and Theatre Exile are doing just that with a virtual reading of Thomas’s play Human Resources, on Thursday, July 30.
How are you, really?
But before we talked about it, I had to ask Thomas another very serious question that’s been hot this summer, and I told him “I’m good” was not a viable answer. “How are you?” Taking the call in his car in a parking lot, he mentioned there was a curious security van pacing around. We laughed nervously—surely it would be nothing. It’s hard to keep safe these days, and the wildest things can happen at any moment.
“You set yourself up in all these different ways [away] from the bad things, and the bad things happen, and you start building the fort,” he said. “Every day is filled with dread, but I also have these moments of joy and fulfillment. Everything is turned up to an 11.”
We’re here for it
R. Eric Thomas is a person on the internet, as he’s branded himself. On the heels of Here for It, his bestselling memoir-in-essays, there’s plenty to worry about when you’re so connected with the world and with yourself. It's simultaneously illuminating and shrouding.
“I have had trouble finding humor over the last month or so,” Thomas said. He’s especially known for his sharp-witted pieces for ELLE.com and delivers one of the internet’s most delightfully diverting newsletters. “When the pandemic started, there was this sort of wildness about it—can you believe our lives are restricted this way?” Measuring the trajectory of conversations from March until now, late July, the curve has been steep, unpredictable, and uncomfortably necessary. Did we collectively have the wherewithal to discuss in February what’s on our minds today? “We don’t have the language to articulate these things and find the right punchline.”
So why puppets? And why now? It’s for the punchline Thomas has been building for years.
Taking it up with HR
Human Resources is a play that takes place after a corporate merger. The new coworkers are “excessively zany”—and they’re puppets. The Silicon Valley satire debuted in 2015 and is seeing new life with Theatre Exile this week, with artistic producer Brey Ann Barrett directing, and actors Lindsay Smiling, Brett Robinson, Liz Filios, David Pica, and a cast of sock puppets. The 45-minute show is coming to your screen, and that might come with a nostalgic feeling.
“I love the antic spirit [of puppets]. I grew up on The Muppets [and] Sesame Street,” Thomas said. “Everything can possibly happen on The Muppet Show.” He noted that there was always a blend of appeal for children and adults—the adventures in those shows were simplistic, easily digestible, and at the same time, complex. With Human Resources, Thomas said, "the play was written as a gloss on anxiety that a lot of corporate structures had. Puppets were a great metaphor. It’s an uncomfortable combination of worlds.”
Thomas said his closest brush with working in corporate America was one of the most antic environments of all: the Hard Rock Café on Market Street downtown. I spent my own time at Applebee’s just a few blocks away, so that hit home.
Looking back to move forward
Thomas has certainly come a long way. As a result, he’s had some time away from Human Resources. He looks at it with a breath of unencumbered air.
“Some of the early things I wrote, I look at them and I realize that I didn’t know what I was doing,” he laughed. “I’d been writing plays for years, but there was less pressure to adhere to rules around craft and it was more about the spirit that had to get out of the work…I appreciate that I let myself write a weird office farce.”
Human Resources arrives as a precursor to another play in the works by Thomas with Theatre Exile. I asked him if he could give us a clue about what to expect from the upcoming summer 2021 project, and he said, “The play is already happening in people’s houses.” He then jested, “It’s definitely not about a Columbus statue, but if a Columbus statue found its way into the play, it wouldn’t be out of place.”
What, When, Where:
The virtual reading of Human Resources will be live on Thursday, July 30, at 7pm. The event is pay-what-you-wish, with a suggested donation of $5. All proceeds will be used to benefit Theatre Exile’s new play development program. Register for the show at Theatre Exile.