Imagine minding your own business, working your minimum wage job at a local coffee place, when you notice an odd substance in the public bathroom. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before, it’s growing, and it appears to have an appetite.
Pick your favorite "I don't get paid enough for this" meme because that’s what happens in Cal Walker’s That Thing in the Bathroom, which Rice University’s oldest student-run theater company, The Rice Players, will premiere this weekend.
Alayne Ziglin, who says they have been doing theater for as long as they can remember, is now a junior at Rice and serves as both a coordinator for the Rice Players and the play’s producer. According to Ziglin, Walker’s play caught the company’s attention as a new work and for its inclusion of non-binary and under-represented character leads.
“We really liked it,” says Ziglin, who uses they/them pronouns. “There is a very large queer community at Rice, and we’re also very excited about having Black actors on stage and having roles that are specifically for these marginalized groups.”
In the play, two baristas at Cool Beans Coffee find they have to “navigate the capitalist world around them as well as this horrifying, unnatural thing in the bathroom,” says Ziglin. One is Tess, a Black woman “in a subordinate role who is more competent than their boss,” and the other is Dill, a non-binary character “who just wants to go home.”
Rice University sophomore Paola Hoffman, who plays Dill in the production, says that though protagonists tend to be “big and bright and bold,” Dill is far from that person when we meet them.
“[Dill is] definitely quieter, definitely more subdued, definitely sarcastic…There’s a defeated-ness to them that I felt through this script,” says Hoffman, who uses they/them pronouns. “It’s the sense of somebody who doesn’t exactly know where their path in life is and they are just trying to – not even trying to figure that out – just trying to get from day to day.”
Unfortunately for Dill, they find themselves in a situation straight out of a 1950s B movie that challenges their, as Hoffman puts it, “I’m not sure what I can do about it” mentality.
Like Ziglin, Hoffman and the stage go way back; in this case, to first grade. Hoffman continued doing theater all the way through their time at an all-girls middle school, where they say they got to play a lot of lead roles – male roles, specifically.
“I had a deeper voice, so it made me good for the parts,” says Hoffman.
That Thing in the Bathroom marks Hoffman’s return to the stage following a five-year hiatus (foregoing theater in high school and devoting the free time of their first year in college to club soccer). An interest in getting back into theater led Hoffman to The Rice Players’ Play in a Day, and a positive experience with the 24-hour play-producing challenge led to That Thing in the Bathroom.
Hoffman adds that reading the play’s synopsis and seeing horror comedy, capitalism and The Blob was like “three home runs in a row.”
“I love things that are scary and creepy and odd and strange, and I love comedies,” says Hoffman. “Comedy horror is an interesting mix. You keep lightness in tone, but you also need to have moments where there is a palpable threat or a palpable issue…Reading capitalism meets The Blob, I was like, what are the true horrors in this world right now? Bad working conditions and things that eat people.”
To Ziglin, the play’s workplace setting will be familiar to people, adding that audiences will likely relate to the workers because “at some point we’ve been each of them.”
“The play to me is really about being part of the working class and how the working members of society are beaten down at every chance,” says Ziglin. “That’s really exemplified by Dill and Tess, who are both more competent than their boss and more willing to put in the work to deal with the thing in the bathroom [but] they can’t.”
The fact that both Dill and Tess are part of marginalized groups emphasizes that oppression and is a critical element that both Ziglin and Hoffman say make the play stand out.
“It is so important that the actors are the identities that they are written to be in the script, because it is a subversion of normal horror tropes,” says Ziglin.
Hoffman points to the history of horror “in which queer people are relegated to monsters” and the well-known trope “that the marginalized characters die first.”
“Specifically, in horror the final survivors are usually white and white cis straight people,” adds Hoffman. “I believe the writer went out of their way to make sure that this is not the story of this play.”
The role of Dill is the first non-binary role Hoffman has played, and Ziglin says Walker’s play is the first time they’ve even seen a non-binary character written into a show. For Hoffman, the importance of the character goes even further because even though Dill is in danger – this is a horror story, after all – it isn’t because of their identity. Their identity is just a fact of who they are.
“They are allowed to exist as a trans person without that ever being questioned, without that ever becoming a point of contention. They are allowed to exist in a fantastical scenario and they’re allowed to just be, and I think that’s really important, especially now, for people to see,” says Hoffman. “It’s great to see more roles being created that specifically allow for actors of those identities to step into those places.”
That Thing in the Bathroom is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on November 17 and 18 at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main. You can learn more about The Rice Players here and here. Free (with donations encouraged).