“I’ve got a vested interest in the world staying horrible—don’t go trying to change it on me,” jokes Portlander Conor Eifler about his unpublished play, You Cannot Undo This Action, which premiered weeks before coronavirus lockdown began.
You Cannot Undo This Action follows high school students entering the stressful, chaotic, pre-pandemic world while navigating online and in-real-life social pratfalls. Two harmless-enough quandaries pop up: One student has no social media presence, while another is obsessively driven to get noticed online by Lin-Manuel Miranda. These dynamics are placed on the back burner, though, when one of their own is victimized after their name appears on one of the worst corners of the internet.
Eifler won the Angus Bowmer Award for Drama at the 2021 Oregon Book Awards on May 2. Michelle Carter, a judge for the awards, wrote that Eifler’s “first concern is rendering teenagers as dimensional human beings, showing their world the respect of his compassionate attention.”
After reading his still-unpublished script, it seems Eilfer won with good reason. He was commissioned in 2019 by Portland theatre company Playwrights West, as part of its Teen West Project, which has an ongoing collaborative relationship with Ida B. Wells High School (known as Wilson High School at the time) to write what became a suspenseful thriller about a group of young folks solving a crime while planning their futures. The result is a classic tale warning of irreversible consequences for throwaway decisions that doesn’t pander to preachy boomer fears, but trusts its actors and crew to cover new ground: engaging how emergent tech intrusively impacts everything, from grief and the surveillance state to the shades and shapes of shadows.
“My first priority was to serve the students, and to give them juicy material that wasn’t condescending, and that did its best to meet them where they are, both developmentally as actors and performers, but also as humans, as people who are exploring all this stuff for the first time, too,” Eifler tells Mercury. He adds that he’s letting himself relish in his victory: “This is the biggest public accolade my work has received.”
If the terminally online are someday cured, will You Cannot Undo This Action still induce dread in future audiences? Don’t hold your breath waiting on the antidote for doom scrolling. Even in the hellish year and a half since its debut, future stagings of You Cannot Undo This Action probably won’t need to update much when live theatre returns. It’s likely that by the time they can see shows again, audiences will still think too fast, act too fast, and overshare too fast, just like You Cannot Undo This Action’s main cast.
“I remember back when email or any sort of username was kind of a cloak. You kept your name secret online,” Eifler says. “It was really alarming, for me anyway, when Facebook hit the scene and that you used your own name, and there wasn’t a clever username to hide behind. It was so against all the advice and warnings that parents and teachers were giving at the time.”
Eifler’s prompt on tech and media came with stipulations. He needed to write a large cast, which he says better suits academic settings than professional theatre companies. He needed to include prominent female and non-binary characters. And even having grown up with social media, he needed to capture Gen Z’s authentic voice, which Eifler achieved through listening sessions with student volunteers.
“I was surprised by the generosity of the students to dig into it, and to offer their stories, their insights,” Eifler says of the listening sessions. “I knew they’d be talented, but I didn’t realize just how personal they’d be willing to go.”
Eifler sought feedback on how students would respond in everyday situations, and which apps they use, rather than specific lines of dialogue or the traumatic experiences covered in the play. While Tik-tok’s supremacy was understood, Eifler was surprised to learn, for instance, how few young people still use Facebook, and how many still use Snapchat.
“I thought that was a fad from several years ago that people ruined by sexually harassing each other with it, and that it would’ve gone out within a year, but I’m surprised that was the one [students] were using the most,” he said.
You Cannot Undo This Action holds relatively few weak points—segments with cloaked extras remind us adolescents are the target audience here, while one scene’s dialogue between a pair of twins read like people trying to remember how teens really sound; I don’t know that I would have picked up on it if I weren’t myself a twin. These grievances are petty, however, when considering production possibilities. Eifler avoids easy cliches when imagining digital space. Nobody talks down to a phone, or flails arms and thumbs typing, but consciously grow indirect and avoid eye contact with one another. A pivotal scene, where characters have overlapping conversations about their relationships, masterfully illustrates the perils of truly instant communication.
“I felt this feeling that you can choose not to engage social media, you can know that you’re maybe healthier without it or with setting particular boundaries with it, but that doesn’t stop other people from misusing [social media] and using it to target others, and to harm and kill others,” Eifler said.
You Cannot Undo This Action is unique in Eifler’s still-unpublished oeuvre, as he says it’s one of his heaviest, most grim works to date. The University of Portland alumnus says the pandemic stifled his creativity, both due to crushing anxiety and a demanding work schedule. His latest project, his first novel, is a departure from the play’s grim tone.
“What I’m working on is definitely not my King Lear, it’s my sourdough, just my comfort, happy place to go to,” Eifler says. “Whereas [You Cannot Undo This Action] was very timely and bleak, this is not at all timely, and just kind of bright and joyful.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Eifler was commissioned by Playwrights West, not Ida B. Wells High School.