I believe I discussed the dilemma of setting a play so firmly in the past that it doesn't resonate any longer with today's audiences. While there are always some people that like historical realism, and maybe this is slightly higher for historical periods that are in lived memory (so those people are fitting the play into their memories of their youth or early adulthood), there are probably at least as many that want theatre to be about "the now." It probably is better to just write a novel if it has to be set in a very specific time frame. And yet I think I will continue to press on with The Study Group.
Interestingly, I'm finding just how hard it is to be accurate when it comes to which version of the ACT the characters would be studying for, since the test changed very substantially throughout the 1980s and early 90s, particularly when they first started allowing calculators in. (This was definitely not allowed in my era.)
On the plus side (at least for Canadian audiences), almost none of them would have taken the test, particularly the ACT in the 1980s, though they would probably at least have heard about it. Still, they would have been even more likely to be familiar with the SAT. So as long as I am plausible about what the sections are, it should be smooth sailing.
The problem comes with US audiences. If you look at this site, you see that in 1989, major changes came to the ACT, and they no longer had a Social Studies section that assumed a working knowledge of US history. Instead, you were asked to read a passage about social studies and answer a bunch of questions. This all became part of a Reading Comprehensive section. They still had a Science section, but it was again, more about scientific reasoning from reading charts and tables and less about having a solid working knowledge of science. That may have been more "fair," but it is definitely a different sort of test than the one for which I am having the characters prep.
So a vanishing number of people would have taken the pre-1989 ACT -- and actually very, very few audience members on the East Coast or in California would have that version of the test. It seems kind of crazy to have to include a note in the program about their being a pre-1989 version of the ACT, but I might have to, given the sticklers who would say this doesn't mesh with their vague memories of the test.*
Anyway, I stopped by OISE last night to look at their oldest ACT study guide. (Combing my memory, this actually was my first time setting foot in the place.) The book was from 1996, so it already was focused on the "new" version of the test. It was substantially different than I expected, particularly how the English section had you find grammatical flaws in sentences.** There was essentially no place for showing off with an extended vocabulary, as there is with the SAT. So I either have to rewrite some sections of what I have already written, or I have to make a big deal about the fact that a few of them are studying for the SAT as well, which certainly would have been common in Michigan at that time. (I was one of the relatively few high schoolers in Michigan who only took the SAT.)
I think I can salvage much of what I have written, but I really need to get my hands on a study guide from 1988, though 1984 would probably be even better. The used book that I ordered is actually from 1990, and it's not a total waste, as this will definitely help me with getting a better handle on the English and math sections (I should probably drop the trigonometry, as that probably was not included at that time, but I wasn't going to go there anyway). But I really need a better sense of what was on the Social Studies and Science sections. I've just put in an order for a 1988 study guide, and I hope 1) it actually is that edition, as sellers tend to get sloppy with listing the proper edition unless it is a valuable first edition and 2) they are still talking about the current ACT rather than the new test. If all else fails, there is a 1984 edition I can order, but I know I wouldn't have that in hand before January.†
Clearly one question is whether this play must be set in 1986 when it would already be easier to move it to 1990 or 1991, but I feel I am somewhat memorializing that moment in time when I was thinking ahead to college, and I just know what it was like to grow up as a teenage then, rather than 1991 when the Gulf War was dominating news coverage and teenagers were starting to wonder if the army bogged down in the desert would they need to reinstate the draft. (Obviously this didn't happen, and Saddam's army just gave up essentially without a fight, but the mood in 1991 was definitely darker than it was in that more innocent age just a few years before.) Also, there are several pop references I want to make, especially riffing on Back to the Future, which was still very fresh in 1986. I'm going to try not to overdo it with the 80s slang, but I'll throw in a bit here and there. This is my favorite site so far covering slang from that era, and this one isn't too bad either. I still hear "sweet" from time to time. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to show how much research can go into writing something set in the near past. At one point I was doing a similar historical dive into life in Toronto from 1992-95 for a different project, but I think I have what I need now, but, if not, I definitely have better resources now than I did a few years ago.
* While it is definitely a less important facet of the play, I do casually have these juniors driving themselves around the city. It's surprisingly difficult to do research on certain facets of life in the late 1970s and 80s, since so few people have bothered to put this on-line (and relying solely on memory is risky, as memories definitely get foggy, particularly for these less essential details). Someone was in a similar boat, trying to find out the youngest age one could drive in Chicago in the late 1970s via this post. When I went to look up the driver's license rules for Michigan, I kept finding out about today's rules, which are clearly different and involve several stages of graduated licensing. In my day, if you took driver's ed in summer school, then you got your license at 16 (and I think you could get a learner's permit at 15 1/2). There might have been some deal where parents had to supervise for a few months, but it was more informal than today's system. Anyway, this article confirms that in 1983, 56% of Michigan residents had a full license at 16 and another 17% had learners permits with some restrictions! While there is a small chance that the laws had changed by 1986 (since the federal government was starting to push for a tightening of licensing for youth), I'm pretty sure it hadn't gotten to Michigan by that point and my memories are correct. Michigan in particular had a car-oriented culture, and our school had a large parking lot for students (though I think seniors had the first crack at the spots). In my case, I had an education exemption and I could drive myself at 15(!), though I couldn't take anyone else in the car (a rule I only broke once or twice).
** I have to say, it was sort of a weird flashback to a bygone era, including how at least a couple of the answers in the guidebook seemed ambiguous or even wrong (something that continues to plague the ACT and SAT). The Reading section was different and actually harder than I expected, and I might not have aced it back in the day. (The SAT suited my strengths better, though I assume I would have gotten a solid score on the ACT.) I have forgotten trigonometry, though I should be able to catch up in time to help my kids through high school math, but most of the rest of the math wasn't too bad. I've forgotten almost everything I once knew about chemistry and most of what I knew about physics. I suspect I would actually do better on the post-1989 ACT than the pre-1989 ACT. If these books I ordered have complete tests -- and they cover both types of tests -- perhaps I will actually take them and post the practice scores (if they aren't too embarrassing). Though that may be going beyond the call of duty...
† Fortunately, neither was very expensive. If I actually thought I would ever make money from writing The Study Group, I could deduct this on my taxes, but that is really just a distant dream.