You might remember this early computer game from your childhood. In “The Oregon Trail” game, you helped your wagon party journey across the country to start a more prosperous life. But the obstacles you had to overcome weren’t easy, and you watched various members of your wagon party die of cholera, snake bites and exhaustion. Although this game might have elicited giggles and laughs at the suffering of your fictional characters at the time, playwright Bekah Brunstetter brings the life of the “The Oregon Trail” into reality in her play. She talks to Paste about writing for both the stage and the small screen, as well as, sadness in the 1840s and present day. The Oregon Trail runs through February 12 at the Fault Line Theatre.
What’s Oregon Trail about?
Bekah Brunstetter: The Oregon Trail follows, kind of juxtaposes, the two lives of two very different young women. You’ve got one who you meet in the ‘90s, who you meet when she’s [Jane] in middle school, and she’s playing “The Oregon Trail” in her computer lab. We follow her life through her mid-20s as she wrestles with a sadness and a frustration with life that she can’t quite explain. Simultaneously, we’re also following the game that she plays, her game of the Oregon Trail. We’re also following a young woman also named Jane, who’s traveling on the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon with her family. The play is about sadness then versus sadness now and to what extent contemporary life makes space for sadness, because back in 1848 if you’re traveling on the Oregon Trail with your family, you can’t necessarily say that you’re too sad to get out of the wagon in the morning and have to get keep going.
That sounds very interesting.
Brunstetter: It’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun play about sadness. It’s one of those sadness comedies!
Where did you get this idea? Or when did you come up with it?
Brunstetter: I actually had the very, very first idea to write it 10 years ago when I was in grad school. I think I wrote the scene and then I put it away because I wanted to really learn about what the Oregon Trail life was actually like. It’s so funny to me that we played this game in middle school, in which we’re traveling on the Oregon Trail, but we really learned nothing about what it was actually like. I put the play aside for a while because I wanted to do that research. Probably about five years ago, I got a really cool fellowship with a theatre here in town called The Lark. They support playwrights while they research plays, so I decided to revisit it. At that point, I wrote the full draft of the play and actually started to learn more about what life was like for people actually on the trail, and what life was like for women and how people viewed sadness then. I learned a lot about the history of mental illness and how it used to not be a thing. Now, it’s a thing. It all started back then. The two young women’s lives became clear to me first and then I started using the game as a structure, which was just a lot of fun, because I love that game as I think many people did when they were young.
What were the challenges of putting this show on a stage with the two different time periods?
Brunstetter: The guy who is directing it, Geordie Broadwater, we’ve actually worked on it together in a couple of different readings and workshops, so it’s cool that we’ve tried to explore it more. I honestly have not seen it yet. I actually got into town tonight, so I’m seeing it for the first time tonight. It’s scary and thrilling. I would imagine what’s difficult—and there was a production of this in Portland and the technical elements were amazing—but what’s challenging is keeping the trail stuff real. The family is fjording a river, losing wagon wheels and people are dying. It was important to me that it all felt real. At first, you’re laughing and enjoying the nostalgia of the game and then people lost their lives. It was quite arduous to do this, and I want that to come across too. It’s a play, but how can it feel scary and not just like a middle school history play?
How does this differ from your other plays and other work? I know you also wrote the upcoming TV series American Gods and This Is Us. How does this compare to that? I know writing for TV must be a totally different beast than playwriting.
Brunstetter: I’m actually writing on This is Us right now, which is a new family drama for NBC. Any TV job, you’re a part of a staff, so you’re helping your boss execute his or her vision. It’s super collaborative, and you’re more of a part of a team, whereas with a play, you’re writing it alone and then it becomes about your collaborators after you write it. With a play, you really need to know what it is that you’re exploring and what it is that you mean to say. That’s on you. You can’t really look to anyone else to tell you that, whereas with TV—until, of course, you have your own show—you’re part of discovering that. I find TV work to be very liberating, because it’s not all on me. They’re both rewarding in different ways. I’d say that this play, which I wrote about five years ago, has a special place in my heart. It’s so fun and insane. It’s one of the more theatrical things that I’ve written. I always write dramedies, but my plays since then have become a bit more grounded and serious, so this play for me is remembering the crazy shit I did in my 20s. I’m now happy to go to bed earlier, but I loved remembering what life was like then.
This happens before her [Jane’s] 20s, but I heard that Jane’s school crush plays into this a little bit.
Brunstetter: Yeah, there’s a guy when she’s in middle school. There’s a boy, who she likes, that she has an encounter with that she never forgets. You see the trauma that haunts her when she gets older and catches up with her in her adult life. Since in our contemporary lives we’re not traveling the Oregon Trail with our families, other things become our hardships and our traumas. Be it rejection by a boy, a girl or a friend when you’re at that impressionable age at 12 or 13, those kind of events become the things that shape you, imposed to “I saw my mom die of a snake bite.” But they have the same value, so it was interesting to me juxtaposing the hardness of the trail to parts of life now.
How much of the game does the play incorporate?
Brunstetter: The game is probably a good 30 to 40 percent of the play. The play follows the structure of a round of the game. If you remember at the beginning, you name the members of the people in your wagon party and you go to the general store to get your wares, you decide whether you’re a farmer or a banker and then you travel the trail. You encounter things and you decide what to do. That basic structure is the structure of the play. It’s the past story and the present story. The option to continue on the trail or not is a huge part of the play. Jane in her contemporary life, that’s the choice she keeps being given. In the play, those choices that are usually just flashing on your computer screen in front of you are actually a character and an omnipotent voice from the rafters that gives her choices and demands her responses. It starts off as a game and becomes something a little more malicious then it’s meant to be. It’s the voice of fate, the voice of time and the voice of life as it chugs on and forces you to deal with it.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Brunstetter: It’s a shitty time. This play is not politically important. I do think that it’s a hell of a lot of fun and we need that right now. It also is about how to keep going, which is also important to think about right now. I hope it adds value to people’s lives at this time, because it really is a fun night at the theatre. It’s only 80 minutes, which is my favorite kind of play. It’s like “I can do this, but I can also do other things!” You can live a lot of life before and after and hopefully have some thoughts about it. I feel like it’s a safe play if you don’t like plays, usually don’t go to plays or have a friend that doesn’t like plays. It’s a nice beginners theatre play.
Alicia Kort is Paste’s Theatre Editor.