Omega Kids: A Conversation with Noah Mease and Jay Stull
If you make the trek up the four flights of stairs at 380 Broadway to the Access Theater, you’ll come upon an unlikely sight: a small black box in the middle of a spacious white room, like something that fell from outer space. Inside, you’ll find a sunken square of plush white carpet surrounded by chairs on all sides, evoking not so much a stage as a blank canvas, or a Zen garden not yet raked into a design.
This is the performance space for New Light Theater Project’s Omega Kids, a play about two twentysomething boys (Fernando Gonzalez and Will Sarratt) passing a long, rainy night in each other’s company, written by Noah Mease and directed by Jay Stull. They’re both named Michael, they’re both a bit shy, and they have at least one thing in common: their fascination with the titular Omega Kids, a comic book about a group of teenagers grappling with X-Men-style superpowers.
In addition to his playwriting, Mease is an Obie Award–winning prop designer who’s worked on intricately designed plays like Annie Baker’s John and Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. So it makes sense that he’s chosen to center his play on a prop: a copy of an issue of the comic book, which he wrote and illustrated himself, that is not only perused by the characters onstage but is also in the hands of each of the audience members.
Omega Kids is a story about the way we use stories to connect — or not connect — with the people around us. Employing a potent blend of naturalism and expressionism, the play creates a world that is both lushly romantic and endearingly mundane, where as much is communicated through charged silences and canceled gestures as through the languor of meandering conversation.
I sat down with Mease and Stull — who first met when they were both members of the Fresh Ground Pepper’s PlayGround PlayGroup in 2014 — one night after the show to talk about how Omega Kids‘ singular combination of the epic and the ordinary came to be.
Jenna Scherer: What was the germ of Omega Kids?
Noah Mease: I wanted to write this play about how we talk in summaries all the time. It felt like all of my conversations with friends had become us summarizing external stories at each other — like, TV shows that we’d seen or articles we’d read. All of the content of the friendship was filtered through these stories. And you never see that onstage.
Jay Stull: I remember the first day I met Noah, we all pitched what we were writing. And he was like, “I want to write the most boring play in the world, and have a comic book. I want to make the play boring enough that people can feel free to read it.” And then when I saw it read, I was like, this isn’t boring at all! This is all subtextual tension, and so much of what I’ve experienced and what I assume a lot of people have experienced about romance.
The romance between the two characters in this play is very specifically a queer romance.
JS: I was always interested in this play because I felt like it articulated the walls and contours of the closet in ways that were exciting. It’s certainly not about not being able to articulate that you have a non-normative sexual desire, but it is about not being to articulate the thing that you think you are. So it’s kind of an inverse closet — it’s a fear of wanting to be basic or commodified.
NM: This play is a reaction to the queer narratives that were available when I was growing up. They were all like: Two gay men who don’t know that they’re gay realizing that they are through shame and misery. I wanted to write a play that felt more grounded in what you could actually live in your real life, using those tropes from queer narrative and also superhero narrative.
In the world of the play, the Omega Kids comic acts as a sort of bridge between the two Michaels.
JS: Art is so personal. The stories that move us, those are who we think we are. We model our lives around the heroes that we grew up wishing we were. And I think it’s such a beautiful portrait, what Noah has done, to say: This art matters to this guy. And it’s the smallest art. It’s not an opus. It’s not Wagner. But it’s so integral to how he understands his life and his development.
NM: There’s a moment where you both know enough about the same thing to enjoy each other’s conversation about it. And then geek culture knows how to take that too far. [Laughs] Like, if you don’t like the right X-Men best, then we can’t be friends. There’s a quality of bravery that Michael doesn’t learn about in superhero comic books that we need in our lives to make things happen. Our stories tell us to wait for the magical object that will fall into your lap or the giant quest that will define your life to be handed to you. That’s what we’re taught to want, and that’s why we’re miserable. [Laughs]
How have audience members been interacting with the comic during the show?
NM: A lot of my theater training has been about giving the audience a lot of free will. So for me, the comic is an option for the audience. A lot of people are choosing not to read it, which I think is totally fine, because I never want to take my eyes off the actors either. But even the choice not to read it feels exciting for the piece, because you’re holding this tactile object the whole time, and it’s a physical connection to what’s happening onstage.
In contrast to the superhero stuff that’s happening in the pages of the comic book, what goes on between Michael and Michael onstage is very small and personal.
JS: One of the exciting things that I see in theater is that people are asking increasingly: What is stageworthy? What is dramatic? Who represents me and my story? This play has a very specific audience, and I think it tends to be people who are very sensitive in their life, who probably are pretty anti-conflict. If you have an audience full of geeks watching this play, I think they’re riveted, because they’ve been there.
NM: The reason that I gravitate toward this kind of theater is that it feels more connected to a lived life. There’s something really radical in saying that those little moments are worth all of us sitting quietly for 85 minutes and watching them happen. It celebrates them in a way that feels special and worth coming to witness.
How does the way the play is designed and staged help to bring audiences into that experience?
JS: We had a lot of discussions with the designers of how to invite people in the minutes before the play starts. How do we change their metabolism? Their pulse needs to drop. So we created this Zen garden–like space, which is actually just a carpet. But small, simple things can seem otherworldly from a different perspective.
The lighting and sound creates this sense that the superhero world is kind of slipping into our own.
NM: The reason that this play is about superpowers, I think, is because it’s about these tiny little moments in your life, that when you live them, you feel super. When you’re falling for someone, suddenly you can remember everything they’ve ever said to you, and you can stay up all night, and all the things that you hope for start to work out. And I think that this play needs all of that language sucked down from comic book world in order to fill those moments in the audience’s imagination.
There’s a lot of silence in Omega Kids, but those silences feel really charged.
JS: Yeah. Especially if you want them to kiss. [Laughs]
NM: It’s really amazing to watch how much people love watching two people who might find a connection.
JS: This is one of the things I’m most interested in theater: How to represent a true moment in time onstage, and how dilating time, accentuating pauses, even unnaturally so, might bring us in. But it’s also a super fine line to walk. We have to be able to take the audience with us.
Omega Kids is at the Access Theater through Saturday, March 25.
New Light Theater Project: http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com/
Noah Mease: http://www.noahmease.com/
Jay Stull: http://www.jaystull.com/