Jennifer Haley’s provocative play “The Nether” confronts you with such questions. Unlike most of the popular war and fantasy games that dominate the virtual reality (VR) market, this live action drama takes you into one of the darker corners of cyberspace where some of the most disquieting role-playing lurks.
“The Nether” takes place, in part, inside a fictional VR portal called The Hideaway where adult men are free to indulge their sexual desires for pre-pubescent girls. If this sounds disturbing, it is. But not because we see depictions of taboo sexual encounters; none are explicitly portrayed onstage, only suggested.
What is most unsettling are the issues the playwright raises about the lure and morality of such role-playing realms, the boundaries between imagining and acting, and the use and abuse of artifice. Without resorting to sensationalism, and in the format of a futuristic cop drama, Haley has you pondering such concerns in an era when cyber-experiences are a growing aspect of our collective entertainment milieu and sub-conscious.
“The Nether” poses its philosophical and ethical concerns so intriguingly that it won a 2011-12 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (awarded annually to an outstanding new play by a female writer). Though new to Seattle (in a production by Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, which runs through May 14), the play has been seen Off-Broadway, and in theaters across the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia. I first took in “The Nether” in 2016, in a chilling Philadelphia staging by InterAct Theatre. It haunted me and piqued my curiosity: What inspired Haley to create the play? What sort of reactions had it engendered?
I caught up with the genial, articulate Haley by phone. Based in Los Angeles, she is currently working on a potential TV series based on “The Nether” and a screenplay of her earlier play, “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom,” about a lethal computer game addiction in suburbia. (Haley’s TV screenwriting credits include “Mindhunter” and “Hemlock Grove.”)
In addition to her screen projects, Haley is working on another play – again with a VR theme. “It’s called ‘Froggy,’” she reveals, “and it’s about a woman who sees her lost love in a B-grade, underground video game, and goes off to find out what happened to him.”
Before her writing career took off, Haley spent several creatively formative years in the late 1990s immersed in techno-hotbed Seattle’s popping fringe theater scene. “It was such a great time to be there,” she recalled. “I performed with Printer’s Devil Theatre and volunteered at Annex Theatre, and ran the box office for the Seattle International Children’s Theatre Festival.” Eventually, she moved east to earn a master’s degree in playwriting at Brown University, under the tutelage of noted playwright Paula Vogel.
“In class, Paula would throw out different writing prompts. Sometimes she’d tell us, ‘Write what you hate.’ I have a particular hatred of TV crime procedurals — shows like ‘CSI’ and ‘Law and Order: SVU,’ where they completely solve these terrible crimes in an hour. So I started thinking about what a procedural for the stage might be.”
The tech-savvy Texas native, who became a web designer to support her writing habit, also wanted to probe the potential ethical issues arising from our fascination with computerized illusions. “I thought, what if someone puts out a game where you could play genocide? Or where you could play Holocaust? What if someone has done something really, really awful in virtual reality? That led me to thinking about pedophilia.”
In “The Nether,” a concerned female detective interrogates Mr. Sims, a man who procures young girls for real-life clients who frequent The Hideaway. The pre-pubescent girls are actually avatars — computer-generated characters that virtually interact with the clients.
Morris, the detective, is disgusted by The Hideaway. But Sims defends it as a safe outlet for men who might otherwise act out their erotic longings with real children. Haley says she wanted audiences “to ride the fence” and consider both sides of the debate: Would it be better to ban this kind of game to discourage pedophilia? Or to permit it as a victim-less alternative to child molestation?
When Haley started work on the play in 2010, “I wondered if Sims had a viable First Amendment argument — or am I just making this all up?” Yet by the time premiered in Los Angeles in 2013, virtual role-play forums that allowed adults to “participate” in simulated acts of sex and violence, were already catering to millions.
Recently criminal justice officials in Germany, Australia and other countries have debated whether visitors of “underground” virtual sites that involve pedophilia should be prosecuted for child pornography crimes. Some have suggested that virtual reality avatars of young girls be used to help identify, diagnose and possibly punish the adult clients.
Yet, as Sims suggests in the play, can some of these adults benefit from expressing but limiting such desires by playing them out virtually? That remains controversial among therapists and other experts, as noted in a 2016 VICE story.
“The Nether” stirs inquiry, but doesn’t prescribe remedies. And the play’s thoughtful rather than lurid approach to a troubling topic has won over skeptical theatergoers and audiences. As columnist Giles Fraser wrote in The Guardian, after seeing a 2015 London production, “The question posed by the play is whether there can be a world without consequence? Indeed, whether there are some ideas that are so intrinsically wicked that even to entertain them is wrong, irrespective of impact?”
Haley acknowledges the topic alone can be a turn-off. “The material is pretty challenging, but the play’s been done in so many places — South Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Slovenia, Istanbul, Mexico City, Scandinavia, Germany.”
“I don’t know if there are a lot of walkouts, or how many people get up in arms about it. But I do remember talking with a woman at the world premiere who’d been working in the penal system in Texas. She was really grappling with this issue of how to provide pedophiles with a virtual outlet without telling them pedophilia was OK.”
“The problem is,” she continued, “will a given individual’s virtual behavior propel them to want to do it for real? Or will it satiate their need to do it in reality? There’s no way to know. So part of the thing with ‘The Nether’ is, you just don’t know.”
Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of "The Nether" plays through May 14 at 12th Avenue Arts.