If you felt a small rumble in the earth’s atmosphere on Sunday night, you can blame the collective sound of every current and former theater kid in your area crying out in perfect harmony: “Wait—is this fucking episode about this fucking play about us?” (For the record, we achieved perfect pitch, and expect a glowing review in the Euphoria High School newspaper come Monday.)
An improbable amount of people are watching Euphoria each week, and in the seventh episode of Season 2, creator Sam Levinson dared to ask the question: Exactly how many of those people have participated in a senior showcase of Arsenic and Old Lace? After watching Euphoria’s play-within-the-show, Our Life, there’s no doubt that this one was for them—for every character shoe they wore, for every set they painted to look like a castle wall, for every line of old-age makeup applied to a teenager by a teenager without any practical knowledge of a glabellar line, and for every fake-puff-cigarette they insisted was integral to their character. Euphoria may not glamorize drug use, but it sure as hell glamorized high school theater.
In Euphoria’s behind-the-scenes segments, director of photography Marcell Rév has repeatedly said that Season 2 is intended to function more as a remembrance of high school than a realistic representation of it, which is how they “get away with exaggerated, stylized moments.” That’s just, like, your opinion man, but we can agree to say that Euphoria consistently pulls off its most stylized moments because Euphoria isn’t about high school, it’s about how high school feels—or felt. And in that case, a theater kid putting on a play so eviscerating yet so simultaneously lauded by one’s peers that it sends the two prettiest people in school running from the auditorium could feel pretty gratifying in the ol’ memory bank.
But even more than a memory, the audience’s reaction to Our Life seems to be Lexi’s fantasy that we’re watching play out on a parallel track to her actual production—and if the two happen to cross paths in the Venn diagram of fantasy and reality that is Euphoria, then so be it. Following “The Theater and Its Double,” Levinson said that the episode doesn’t only depict Lexi’s play, but also the subjective experience of all the characters watching themselves onstage. And then, the notoriously singular creator casually dropped this line: “Like, I’m never quite sure if this is exactly what Lexi’s putting on, or if it’s [the audience’s] interpretation of it.”
Sam! That is such an interesting thing to say after you’ve written, produced, and wrapped an episode, aired it to millions of people, and filmed an additional behind-the-scenes segment to explain said episode. I guess we could find it reassuring that “never quite sure” is the intended response to Euphoria; that it’s up to us to make our own decisions about what’s reality, what’s fantasy, and maybe even what’s fear inside the freshly painted walls of Lexi’s over-the-top high school production. Because Sam Levinson is not going to do it for us.
But personally, I need a little help making those calls because, as a theater kid, I cannot simply have fun—I need to make the fun my art until it is no longer fun anymore and I’m doing precise calculations on scrim-costs-per-set while screaming at the light technician to go to 86.
Who better to help us sort through the realities of producing a high school play than real-life high school theater directors? It’s my own former drama teacher from deep in the heart of Texas, Tredessa Thomas, who points out that the most glaring indictment of the legitimacy of Lexi’s sophisticated production is that her first act as a playwright was to alienate the one adult at Euphoria High who could help her navigate the complicated process of producing a play in a few short weeks. (Rue says that Lexi has been talking on the phone to Fezco “for the last few months,” but we know the season started in January. Lexi then had to write the play, and it is, at the latest, April now, so … she was likely in production for no more than a month.) Lexi went behind the Euphoria High School theater director’s back—or rather, over their head—to ask a vice principal if she could put on her own play since no one wanted to do Oklahoma!, and then proceeded to steal half the student body (and maybe half of the school’s annual budget, but we’ll get to that later) to produce her rival show. Needless to say, Lexi’s access to the theater department’s prop closet, costume cache, and set workshop were probably limited at best.
Ms. Thomas’s primary concern seems to be universal among theater teachers: frugality by any means necessary. “I have that mindset coming from the public school system—how am I going to scrimp and use what I’ve got?” High school theater directors are often choosing shows based on their ability to pull from set pieces and costume collections they already have on hand. Lexi, on the other hand, seems to have no such interest in pinching precious pennies or minimizing scene changes—because Lexi is unburdened by any sort of adult oversight. Even at Euphoria High School, pretty much a teacherless wasteland where no one notices that the kids are arriving to school high and covered in rhinestone glue every day, it seems like if this play about drugs and sex and phallic gym equipment somehow made it to the stage, it would surely be subjected to an impromptu curtain drop some time around the moment Ethan’s, uh, water bottle starts, uh, jizzing all over everyone.
But, at least from an audience perspective, the lack of faculty supervision could be fairly realistic. “Maybe the theater teacher is sitting by the booth, watching it go down,” Lori Hilliard, a high school theater director in Asheville, North Carolina, tells me. In her 25 years of experience, Ms. Hilliard says getting high school administrators to attend school plays can be hard work. (Maybe all high school principals really are Janelle James from Abbott Elementary.) With that in mind, we can only assume that Lexi’s play is put on entirely by students, and with no adult oversight during rehearsals or performance.
Both teachers point out, however, that by the sheer will of her artistic creativity, Lexi actually manages to save money by writing her own play. When high schools put on a big musical, the bulk of their already small budgets—I was quoted anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per mainstage play depending on the size of the school—goes toward licensing fees and royalties. It not only costs money to get the rights to put on the play, but costs a fee for each performance, and depending on the size of the theater, those fees can be quite steep. Euphoria High School has a big theater, but they also have a Lexi Howard original, straight off the MacBook Pro.
Unfortunately, the budget loopholes end there. While a Lexi Howard original might not require licensing fees (I mean, that we know of), it does require 10 individual, customized, highly complicated sets that, when not being used onstage, seem to roll off into wings that have been hit with an Undetectable Extension Charm, or pulled up into the battens of a ceiling the size of Notre-Dame’s. Julianne Franz, the production manager at Baltimore School for the Arts, told me that without access to a pre-existing props closet full of the perfect materials, Lexi’s production could easily cost around $500,000 to produce. When I asked if, given enough crew and time to build them, Lexi’s many sets might be a producible feat, Ms. Franz replied in a word: “No.”
So, I guess we’ll chalk these perfect bedroom replicas complete with burger stools, Rihanna posters, and wall-to-wall carpeting that seem to appear at will up to fantasy.
Now, I didn’t ask where Lexi may have gotten the rest of the money for her 10 fully functional set pieces, two sets of animatronic lockers, and one aerial ring strong enough to hold a teenage girl—mostly because I had already made these high school educators watch those scenes of Nate sexually putting bows in Cassie’s hair, and I didn’t want to have to tell them about the booming drug sales scene in Euphoria too. But Ms. Thomas did note that, per OSHA, the aforementioned aerial work would require bringing in a professional flying specialist, as opposed to a couple of crewmembers in the wings just yanking on a pulley system in mismatched black turtlenecks. From the totality of Lexi’s production, and the speed with which it came together, Ms. Hilliard presumes that they would’ve had to consult a few more professionals. Namely, a choreographer, a costume director, a set designer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, and a technical director to oversee all of those things.
As a former high school theater kid who was absolutely never trusted near a nail gun, my suspicions that we wouldn’t be in for a normal evening of amateur theater started with the packed house that included all 77 inches of Nate Jacobs, who has never happily gone anywhere in his life. But my trio of experts agree that one of the most impressive production feats of Lexi’s play wasn’t the butts in the seats—it was the turntable on the stage, twisting Lexi and her lockers around so elegantly it could have only been installed by the Schuyler sisters themselves (work!).
It’s unclear whether Euphoria High School had this revolving stage built before Lexi got a hold of it (I mean, they were able to cough up the coin to license Oklahoma!). Ms. Franz knew of at least one high school with a revolving stage, but when it comes to Lexi’s production, I’m more partial to a rumor Ms. Hilliard once heard about a high school teacher who “put a huge hole through the floor so that she could build a turntable for Big River, and um … she wasn’t at that high school the next year.”
But even if what’s happening onstage is pure fantasy, and probably going to get someone fired, these theater professionals say that what’s happening behind the stage and in front of it during Lexi’s play is pure, electric reality. Despite believing that Our Life is more of a Lexi Levinson production than a Lexi Howard production, Ms. Franz pointed out that “the episode does a remarkable job of reminding me what it feels like to be an audience member—feeling a connection to the stage as a center point while sitting elbow-to-elbow with others.” One of Ms. Hilliard’s 12th grade students, who will soon be directing a play she wrote as part of Ms. Hilliard’s student-led showcase, told me she found the excitement and nerves thrumming through backstage to be true to life, but Lexi’s swift insertion of herself and dominance over the proceedings to be unlikely: “The theater community is usually a lot more tight-knit and isn’t run by just one person.”
The same student did wish she could borrow a little of the R-rated language from Lexi’s unsupervised production for her own play, but Ms. Hilliard asks that the students keep their dialogue PG, even if the content skews a little more PG-13. (And oh yes, Ms. Hilliard does read the student plays before they hit the rotating stage.)
And speaking of content: Give Ethan a scholarship to Juilliard, and give Lexi … well, the directors would like to give Lexi a few notes, actually. Because while all of the teachers I spoke with appreciated the entertainment value of the episode’s final musical number, three out of three theater directors agree that the moment they read the scene, there would’ve been a call for some major reworking. Why? The direct targeting of an already violent student? The jizz streamers? The grinding, moaning, and partial nudity?
Definitely yes to all those red flags, but also, from a narrative point of view, the resounding editorial note was Lexi’s lack of consistency. “I don’t know where that [musical number] fits into a story about these five girls,” Ms. Thomas said, while still insisting that she loved the number in a vacuum. If this script had come across Ms. Hilliard’s desk for approval, she says she would have pushed Lexi to consider the cohesiveness of her story line, and what her goals are in telling that story—is it to mourn, is it to heal, or is it simply to trigger the audience? And once she helped Lexi get to that point, she would have to explain to her why simulating an orgy onstage just to make Nate Jacobs mad is simply not an option, whether the principal is in attendance or not.
“High schoolers are gonna high school,” Ms. Thomas told me. And teachers are gonna teach. Lexi’s production brought down the house, as well as the personal walls she’d built around herself, even if that production partially existed in her head. But the directors I spoke with still hope for more from her story than inconceivably high production value and shock for shock’s sake. Only the finale can tell us what Lexi really intended for any of it to mean—and whether those intentions ever mattered at all.
“The Theater and Its Double” felt a little like a goosebump-inducing, profound commercial with copy about how “this one’s for the weirdos, the dreamers, the rebels,” only to reveal itself, in the end, to be an advertisement for hard seltzer. This one is for the quiet ones, the theater kids, and the scrawny junior forced to play a middle-aged woman, a hyper-masculine jock, a drug-addled dad, and a zany photographer because he’s the only guy in drama class. But it’s also just a means for Euphoria High School’s newest dramaturg to show up, show out, and start some shit. To quote Euphoria’s cuddliest drug dealer: “You stroking the bee’s nest with that one, Lexi.”