Wonderland Isn’t Real
My interest in this award began with my first visit to Doheney Library back in 2018, when I collected every pamphlet I could find in an attempt to turn that huge stone building into my regular office. I had just arrived on campus as a first year MFA student in Dramatic Writing, and I carried that yellow flyer around in my backpack with the intention of writing a Lewis Carroll-inspired playat some point over the course of my degree.
Then, in the spring semester of 2020, my Professor, Oliver Mayer, issued a challenge to us to do just that. I began to visit the G. Edward Cassady, M.D., and Margaret Elizabeth Cassady, R.N., Lewis Carroll Collection to acquaint myself with different illustrated versions of“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”One day when I went, an array of past winning submissions had been set out on the tables so that the cast of “Alice in Wonderland”at a nearby theater could explore them. I was particularly taken with the pop-up book a past winner had created, but even more enamored by the responses of people in the room. Listening to people discuss the wildness of these creations, I began to have a reverence for an artist who could inspire this kind of creativity and wonder in others. It seemed to me that the true beauty of what Carroll had done, was to create a world strange enough to free the strange, wild, child-like genius in all of us.
This curiosity with the author himself sent me on a whole new exploration.I began to read about this math puzzles, his eccentric personality, and his work as a teacher. When Covid hit, I was lucky enough to have already checked out numerous books about him, and spent the summer reading and planning a biographical play. As a teacher and tutor myself, I was particularly interested in his relationship with Isa Bowman, the original Alice,and his other“child friends”. Reading the letters he wrote to them, he would play with the idea of truth in language. When Isasigned off her letter with, “a thousand kisses,”for example, he wrote back explaining that one thousand kisses would take much too much time and was completely unrealistic. These interactions reminded me of my conversations with one of my students in particular,Riyan.
Riyan is an extremely bright nine year old boy who deals with mild autism and has trouble separating fact from fiction.One day over the summer we had a conversation about how, in his opinion, broccoli was extremely bad for you. To him this was definitely true, because it tasted bad and therefore made you feel bad emotionally. I explained that broccoli was actually extremely healthy, but he refused to accept my explanation that anything could be healthier than pizza(because it makes youhappy, obviously!)This conversation felt strangely Carrollian, and I wondered what Carroll’s response would have been. It also felt timely, as I watched hundreds of thousands of people deny the uncomfortable truth of Coronavirus, with dire consequences.
Conversations with Riyan, including one in which he refused to acceptt hat Charlotte had truly died at the end of “Charlotte’s Web”, made me realize that I wanted to explore this idea of chosen truths: when do we unknowingly choose to believe things that aren’t true? It also made me realize that instead of writing the biographical teacher-student relationship of Dodgson and Isaor Alice, I would write about my own students, their struggles,and my experience as a teacher, inspired by Carroll’s personality, point of view and writing style.
I had meanwhile moved back to Tulsa, OK during the pandemic, where I used to be a classroom teacher.I find that the place where I write often informs the writing, and Tulsa found its way into this play. Oklahoma incarcerates more people and women per capita than any other place on the planet. I found that, in creating the character of Ray, I had to acknowledge the realities I’d witnessed of the effect this had on many of my students.As I wrote more,I researched more, and this play evolved into one about the effect of mass incarceration on the children of those incarcerated.It is also a testament to my struggles as a teacher,attempting to be a therapeutic aid to my students amid a broken system.
“Wonderland isn’t Real”is therefore the story that unfolded from this venture and this place. The protagonist, Ray,is a nine year old boy living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose mother, Gianna,has been incarcerated. Unable to admit to him the truth, she tells him she’s in Wonderland, as “going to Wonderland”was a game they used to play to find calm in stressful times. When Ray finds “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”in his special-ed classroom, he begs his teacher Ms. Jesse to let him read it, then uses it as a road map to try to find his mother, and the truth. Along the way he conjures characters to aid him, such as Mr. Hatter and Tiger (the Cheshire Cat’s great great granddaughter).
In writing this play, I paid careful attention to the ideasa nd structures within the original book. I tried to incorporate a “Ray”version of Carrollian language through Mr. Hatter and Tiger, while pulling in themes of systemic authority and the unnecessary pressures of time.I felt strongly that the story should end with a court scene as it does in the book, but Ray’s position is the inverse of Alice’s:while she can wake from her dream and realize that, “you’re all just a pack of cards!”, Ray is unable to hold onto his comfort-dream, nor escape the harsh reality of his life.
In the end, like so many before me, Carroll unlocked a story I didn’t know I had to tell. He gave me the freedom to play with language and a dreamscape with wild, strange abandon.I’m so grateful for this opportunity, but even more so for the prompt, which inspired my graduate thesis and will hopefully make an active difference in this world.If it weren’t for this competition, I would never have found and written this play.