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In ‘Poster Boy,’ parsing a cyber-bullying victim’s digital clues

Composer Craig Carnelia (left) and book writer Joe Tracz at rehearsal.
Composer Craig Carnelia (left) and book writer Joe Tracz at rehearsal.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

WILLIAMSTOWN — Online chat forums foster a particularly 21st-century sort of community — a space where emotional intimacy transcends geographic distance, even while the fuller picture of someone’s life can remain outside of view.

It’s this sort of community, existing nowhere in physical space but with a very real presence in its members’ lives, that the musical “Poster Boy” seeks to dramatize.

The heart of the piece is the 2010 death of Tyler Clementi, the freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide shortly after his roommate used a webcam to share footage of an intimate encounter between Clementi and another man. But the story is told from the view of members of a gay-interest Web forum frequented by Clementi, after they connected the dots and realized that the tragedy they were hearing about on the news involved one of their own.

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“As theater practitioners, we have to find ways to tell stories about the Internet onstage. We spend so much of our lives online, and yet the Internet is an anti-theatrical space,” says “Poster Boy” book writer Joe Tracz, seated on a recent morning in a rehearsal studio at Williamstown Elementary School. “It is not people in a room shouting across a dinner table. They may be shouting, but it’s in written form.”

“Poster Boy” is making its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, with performances beginning Wednesday.

“We really hit on the idea of what this space is to these guys,” Tracz says about the Web forum where Clementi posted, “and it serves a function that gay bars used to serve, which is that you can come and be with people who are like you. You can feel it’s a safe space. And as recent terrible news stories have reminded us, even the safest space can be invaded.”

Three-time Tony Award nominee Craig Carnelia, who conceived of the show and wrote its music and lyrics, says he and Tracz relied on some 400 pages of documents, including transcripts of online chats, to anchor the show with words Clementi and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used.

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At a rehearsal in the school’s auditorium later that morning, the team works on the interplay between online conversations and flashbacks to the incidents they reference. The scene shifts from a Gchat conversation between Clementi (played by Taylor Trensch) and a friend (played by Katie Lee Hill) and the awkward real-world interaction between Clementi and Ravi (Rohan Kymal) in their dorm room. It’s all framed by conversations taking place on the Web after the fact.

Director Stafford Arima fine-tunes a moment between Clementi and Ravi, working to underline the sense of the two as ships passing in the night, interacting online but not in person. As the cast prepares for a run-through later that day, Carnelia and Tracz are ready to head elsewhere and continue working on script changes. There’s a sense of focused deliberation, as the company builds toward a run-through for Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Mandy Greenfield scheduled for the next day.

The documentary evidence informing the show gives it some of the flavor of a detective mystery, as the facts seem to both illuminate and obscure the chain of events leading to Clementi’s death. (Ravi was convicted in 2012 of 15 counts related to the episode, and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Appeals continue, following a court decision that amended a key statute under which he was charged.)

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Arima, the director, says that when he began reading through the evidence collected by the show’s writers he realized the back story was more complex than the impression he’d originally gotten from press accounts.

“I came into this piece with a very specific idea of what I thought the story to be: He was closeted, he was outed, and he was bullied, basically, to jumping off a bridge. That was the sound bite, or the narrative, that we heard,” he says.

But the documents show that Clementi was open about his sexuality with some people, including his new online friends. In one seeming contradiction that intrigued the creators of “Poster Boy,” the young man sounded lighthearted about his roommate’s spying in a chat transcript, but was obsessively checking Ravi’s Twitter feed in the 24 hours before he took his own life.

“In one case he’s deeply invested, in the other case he’s laughing about it,” Carnelia observes, “all in the same time frame.”

“Poster Boy” has had five workshop readings (including one last summer at Williamstown), but this is its first full staging. The run is billed as a world premiere, though the press is not invited to review it; Carnelia says a New York run for the show is on the way.

A subtext to the show, Tracz says, is the idea that we all leave digital trails of our words and activities online, but those fragments may or may not add up to an authentic portrait.

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“You have these words that seem to paint a full picture of somebody, and yet those words are contradictory. One conversation may say one thing, another says another. We are different people to different people in our lives,” he says. “These technologies are meant to bring us closer and connect us, but sometimes they have the exact opposite effect.”

Poster Boy

Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Nikos Stage, Williamstown, July 27-Aug. 7. Tickets: $58-$63, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org


Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.