Eliza Clark’s Future Thinking Takes on Child Stars and Comic-Con Culture With Its World Premiere at South Coast Repertory

Eliza Clark isn’t naming names. But considering she was a working actress by the time she was old enough to go to elementary school, she has seen and known plenty of show-biz kids who have been burned, have burned out, or became famous but were pretty much turds.

Such as Chiara, the fictitious character at the center of Clark’s play, Future Thinking, receiving its world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory. The 23-year-old star of the similarly fictitious TV show Odyssey (think Game of Thrones meets Battlestar Galactica) is a child actor turned adult starlet. Though famous, she loathes her overbearing mother, who groomed her from infancy to be an actress, for turning her into someone who may have gone to many places, but feels as if she has never been anywhere.

“I was a child actor and had a good experience doing it,” says Clark. “But we live in a society that values celebrity, and there’s a lot of pressure on children, so I wanted to write a story based on some of my experiences in child acting, although through the lens of kids I used to know, not myself.”

Set amid the high-profile collision between film and TV stars and their diehard fans, Future Thinking focuses on Chiara and Peter, a 51-year-old man who may be a bit too into her. Already barred by law from being around Chiara, Peter decides to show up at Comic-Con anyway, with more on his agenda than getting a selfie with the actress he idolizes. But it turns out that Chiara is less upset with Peter than with her mother’s attempts to control her, and what begins as a play about how people’s fantasies can get in the way of their reality turns into a play in which people’s reality can also screw up their fantasies.

In some way, each character is enmeshed in a fantasy; the only difference is that Chiara’s is real and truly interesting—if your idea of interesting is being rich, famous and hot. No surprise, Chiara is also the most emotional, high-strung and frequently out of control, the kind of impending trainwreck that Clark has seen more than a few times.

“I was around a lot of people who you, you know, you hear about,” says the playwright, who landed her first acting job as a 6-month-old and appeared onstage, on TV and in commercials until she started focusing on writing while at Yale University. “And I have a lot of sympathy for people who are in positions that they didn’t choose for themselves. While my parents were supportive and just saw acting as just another thing my brother and I liked to do, I was around a lot of kids [for whom] it was their whole lives. Their parents had picked up and moved from some small town to New York City, and they were kind of putting all their chips on the kid. And that is a lot of pressure on a child, to mean something like that to someone else.”

Yet Clark doesn’t necessarily cast parents of show-business brats or parents who drive their kids to excel at sports or even academics as bad people. “I think it comes from a good place,” she says. “Parents want their kids to succeed, and in order to do that, they want something that sets their child apart, that makes them special. But sometimes, that does come at the cost of childhood.”

Clark feels Future Thinking is as much about the perceptions of parents and children and, by extension, all relationships as it is of those of fans and celebrities. Whether family, friends or celebrities, Clark says far too often, we are less concerned with really seeing or hearing the other person than in seeing what we want them to be.

It was only natural for Clark to set a play about perceptions and relationships at Comic-Con, since few places allow for such real-life access to the people who play fantasy characters for the people who feel they know them. And while there are some lines in the play that dismiss fan obsession as nothing more than fueling merch sales and DVD rentals, Clark has a different take. “I think the stories we tell are important to people, and that is exciting for me as a storyteller,” she says. “I like that there are people who engage with the thing, whether it’s a TV show or a film or whatever. That it gives them some relief from their lives to imagine a world outside of themselves. I think it’s a really beautiful thing, but [the fans have to realize] the people who are making the show are not always the warrior that you would imagine them to be.”

Future Thinking at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through April 24. $20-$46.

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