Collaborators in Conversation

This season at the Huntington, we are telling seven distinct American stories. To tease out the connections between the shows, we’ve asked artists from different productions to interview each other about their work. Below, playwright Gina Gionfriddo (Becky Shaw) talks with Kirsten Greenidge, Huntington Playwriting Fellow.
    Kirsten Greenidge: I was going to start with how we met each other at the O’Neill. That was nine years ago?
    Gina Gionfriddo: It was, because it was the summer before September 11th.
    KG: Yes. What I remember most was the initial meeting: those first few days where everyone’s meeting each other and scoping out who is who, if you don’t know everybody. I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s another woman playwright.” Not in a self-competitive way, but I always scope out in those residency programs who else is an “other.” Who else is in my category or group? Given the current climate, talking about how many plays are produced by women in the theatrical landscape, do you wonder about how most plays get produced in a climate like that? Because you and I both know there are so many plays – both by men and women – that don’t quite get there.
    GG: Frankly, I have a theory about me. With After Ashley and Becky Shaw, it was the same situation where I did them at the Humana Festival, and I got a New York Times review that was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. To be perfectly honest, up to getting that review, I didn’t have a theatre in New York that was willing to do the play. I had a lot of theatres that liked the play, but women always have a lot of theatres who like them. But, I don’t know what my prospects would have been if I hadn’t been lucky in terms of those Humana reviews. I do think about that a lot, because there’s so much panic in choosing plays right now. People are looking for something like that to give them the guts to pull the trigger.
    KG: What do you think leads to that panic? Because I definitely feel that panic too, or I think that I see it. Or, do you think it’s real?
    GG: Is it because the economy’s gotten so much worse? There is so little money; they’re looking for name recognition. Do you feel like it’s gotten worse in the years since we met?
    KG: Well. One thing I often do, which is not very smart, is that I tend to put my head in the sand and write. I used to think that was the best way to write: “I’m not going to pay attention to critics, I’m not going to pay attention to reviews.” But, when a theatre’s planning a season, and putting a lot of money behind shows, they depend on people to spend money on shows. I don’t know that my strategy is a good one, to not pay attention. I do see it a little bit more as I see money dry up a little. I see it when I teach that there’s a fear against having opinions that are strong. If you have plays that express something that a theatre thinks its audience might not like, adding strong opinions makes the panic grow even more.
    GG: Unless you’re a playwright like Neil LaBute where bothering the audience is your trademark: bothering the audience. It’s interesting, because I’m trying to go down the rabbit hole right now. Reviews just paralyze you. The bad ones paralyze you. But, the good ones, in my experience, make you paralyzed too. I’ve experienced this feeling before of thinking, “Oh, I’m liked right now. Why would I want to write a play that changes that?”
    KG: As I was preparing for today, I started reading reviews – and not just yours, but others because I never read mine or anyone else’s. I was paralyzed. These weren’t even my plays; I don’t even know those writers, and I was freaked out. I thought, “Okay, you can’t read these anymore.” Do you think there’s a way for theatres to prep audiences to be ready for new plays? Is there a way to get people into a good mindset to receive new work?
    GG: That’s so interesting. I think it is something we both have a problem with, because of the nature of what we write. I only really know two of your plays. But, when I was at Humana, I was so excited by Sans Culottes in the Promised Land. I feel like that play was dealing with something uncomfortable, but doing it in a way that the audience doesn’t check out – which is what I am always trying to do, though less with Becky Shaw. That play was such a blast, but if you stopped to think about it, you were in the realm of something that was painful and uncomfortable. Playwrights like that and plays like that need the most prep, because you have that phenomenon where people need to know that they have permission to laugh. They need to have a little orientation to be permitted to enjoy plays like that. I felt that with After Ashley; it changed a little after it had a seal of approval, but it still had that weird, dark, sexual violence. I think those plays need it more than something like A.R. Gurney – nothing against him, but you know what you’re getting. The plays are wonderful, but he also feels universal for a certain kind of audience. And, I think it’s a ticket buying audience.
    KG: Rob Handel said in Brooklyn Rail, “In Gina’s plays, as in all great plays, no one is wrong. Everyone is right. We don’t know where to stand. It’s uncomfortable.” What intrigues you about writing characters that walk such a fine line, specifically with Becky Shaw?
    GG: My attention span for writing requires that I don’t know how it’s going to end. I have a dim idea of how I think it’s probably going to end, but I want to have characters that are neither foul nor fair. They can surprise me. There can be some suspense in my own heart. I also think it’s truthful. I don’t meet a lot of people that I think are just villains.
    KG: Becky Shaw was very truthful to me. I remember growing up going to private schools, when I didn’t necessarily have the money to go to them. I was always a scholarship kid from third grade on up into college. The minute she opened her coat and wore the wrong thing, I thought, “Ah, that’s me!” There were times where I have thought, “I shouldn’t have worn that; I shouldn’t have said that.”
    GG: Yes. Also, when I was in the temp pool in Rhode Island, there were women who wanted to marry a wealthy guy to get out of where they were. It was so unspeakable [for them], but every once and a while, you would meet a woman who was up front about it. And, you would see people just cringing. So many people think it, and nobody talks about what it means to be poor and not be able to pull yourself out.
    KG: As I grow older, I notice that more and more. Nobody wants to talk about it, or admit to it. They don’t want to think about what that says you will do to people – and I’m not just talking about other people, I see a lot of Becky Shaw in myself too – to get what you need in life.
    GG: Being an artist, you’ve probably noticed this same thing. When you’re 22, there’s a kind of poverty that is chic, and at thirty, it starts to humilate you. Peter and I knew each other in grad school, and I remember he was living with me when I bought this horrible couch that I found in an ad in the Providence Journal – this gold, velvet, used monstrosity. I said something like, “It’s hip, it’s fun,” and he said, “Well, it’s not, but you can pretend it is.”
    KG: Did you first start working with Peter in grad school?
    GG: I did. Brown was weird. The playwrights were in the English department, and the theatre department was totally separate. I think there had been some bad blood over the years, but the theatre department was not encouraging their people to work with us. And Peter was this person showing up at our readings because he had this hunger to work on new plays. That’s how I met him. He wound up directing my thesis.
    KG: I don’t know why graduate schools do that. I went to Iowa, and fiction is its own thing across the river. Poetry was its own thing, and playwrights were part of the theatre department. I never went across the river, but when people came to us, there was this strange awkwardness.
    GG: We had the same thing at Brown. Now, Brown and Trinity Rep have merged their grad programs. When I was there, there was this tension. Trinity and Brown were trying to get together, but you could sense the students, and their teachers would have preferred the students to be doing Shakespeare. I think it was a problem with the directing program there, too. There was a sense that unfinished new plays weren’t worthy of their years of study. They should be directing Hedda Gabler; they should be doing monologues from Romeo and Juliet. Peter to his credit found a way to break through it. You know who else was there – Sarah Ruhl was an undergrad when I was there. I love Sarah, but I got to be jealous at a certain point. Paula fixed Peter up with her, and I wanted to work with him. She and I still joke about it that there was this rivalry for his talent.
    KG: In playwriting circles, there’s always one or two other playwrights that you have that with. It is respect too, but at Iowa we had that.
    GG: I heard that Iowa ranked fiction students. They didn’t rank playwrights, did they?
    KG: They didn’t rank us, but at the end of the year, we had a festival. They didn’t call them tiers, but you would get either a full production, a workshop production, or a reading. You could also opt out. Iowans, though, are so nice. Not everyone who was teaching there was from there, but there was a cultural optimism, and they would never name that. But, there was a feeling: “Who got the productions this year?” Where I was as a writer, I wasn’t good at seeking out help, so I had two disastrous productions that I should have asked for help. They also put you in charge of your productions, which is this whole other world. How did Becky Shaw change from Humana to now? Did you do a lot of work?
    GG: I did some work. We cut it, because it was long. We changed Becky a bit. There had been some things in the script that I think unintentionally tipped the scales against her. In Louisville, the dress was a little bit over the top. One of the things we talked about coming into New York was that we felt we could be fairer to Becky. Humana is so fast. The show goes up so fast that you really don’t want to be changing the script too much for the actors’ sanity.
    KG: It’s like a whirlwind. How were your two experiences different?
    GG: Becky was a commission from Humana, but I don’t think that made a difference. With After Ashley, I had the workshop at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. With Becky Shaw, I had the workshop that Humana had done with me in New York. So, I had one good development opportunity, which is about all you need before you get it up on its feet. I mean, it’s better to have one than nine. One difference: the star of my play in After Ashley was in the acting apprenticeship program, that was a little bit of an experience. They were always saying things like, “Well, he has to go change a set.” And, I was like, “But, he’s the star of my play!”
    KG: They work them so hard. I can’t believe those people are still standing after the year and definitely after the festival. The festival is crazy.
    GG: I think my experience was different the second time, because I’d been through it once. I knew exactly when it was going to get crazy. Those big weekends just terrify me. Not even because there are high stakes, but because I don’t do that well with crowds and attention. It’s not my personality to deal with that. But they were both good experiences for me. Have you been back?
    KG: I haven’t, which is just as well right now since I have these two kids in tow.
    GG: You have two? That’s wonderful. I knew you had one; I didn’t know you had two. Congratulations.
    KG: I had a baby about six months ago. To me, in the playwriting world, it’s like I’m a cow. I don’t meet many other playwrights, female playwrights, who have one kid. And, I really don’t meet any that have two. I’m trying to figure out how to do this writing thing having two little people underfoot all the time. I’m able to rewrite better than I’m able to generate new material. That leads into a question about I have about gender and playwriting. These residency programs are geared toward being able to leave your entire life for a month. Does that say anything about female writers in the field?
    GG: Being at the O’Neill with Jim Houghton, that was such a high priority for him. At the time, it didn’t mean a lot to me. But, particularly the second time I was there, there were some playwrights who were there with their spouse and their kids, and he had made special housing arrangements, because that was important to him. But that is the exception. Even if they’re going to do that, who has a spouse that can drop whatever they are doing? I love those writers colonies, but I definitely see, because I have been going to them for years, the group just gets younger. Or, they get younger, and they get older, but there is an age that falls out in the middle, because they are having families.
    KG: What are you working on next?
    GG: Well, I left “Law & Order” in May. I almost had a breakdown over it, because the economy was so bad. But, I wanted to leave, and we were trying to get Becky Shaw up in London. We had a very close call, and they were not going to give me time off. That was the point where I said, “I’ve really got to go.” I also have a commission that I am starting to really work on in earnest. It’s a little scary, but it feels good.
    KG: What’s it like to write for TV? I have friends who work in TV, and they talk about TV writing as this Shangri-la where you can have it all. Is that true?
    GG: People ask if writing for TV is good or bad for playwrights. I think it is like saying, “Is surgery good or bad?” There are great surgeries, and there are awful surgeries you should not have. No two shows are created equal. I was lucky with “Law & Order” that we didn’t have a writers’ room. We worked in pairs, and the head writer was really involved. I think shows that are hyper-collaborative would drive me nuts - sitting in a room for all these hours working an idea until you’ve really made it vanilla. I have known people who have wrote for TV where the head writer had a family, so the head writer was really respectful of the work day only being a certain number of hours. But, sometimes you have a boss, if they don’t have a family, that will essentially say, “You can pull up a cot and sleep here.” I think it’s hard to find the good situations. But, the biggest problem for me is that ninety-nine percent of it is in L.A…. It’s unusual to find a show that is written in New York, even the ones who film here. I think for writers who can do it for a while and step away, it gives you some financial security while you write plays.
    KG: That sounds fabulous. There’s not a lot of security.
    GG: Like Diana Son, I think it’s been great for her.
    KG: Is “Law & Order” is a way for you to purge shows like “Nancy Grace”? I know you like them; I love Nancy Grace, and I watch it every night at 8 and 10.
    GG: I do, too! It’s horrible. I do; sometimes I watch it twice.
    KG: I do watch it twice, and I get a little testy if I don’t. Right now, my daughter is going through some sleeping stuff. My children are not sleepers, and I’m not good at training them. I sit outside her door on the couch in the playroom waiting for her to go to sleep and nurse my son, and I haven’t been able to get my “Nancy Grace.” I’m very sad about it. Were those shows a way for you to get that into you, and then your TV work is a way to spew it back out?
    GG: Well, yes and no. I think it couldn’t be cathartic, because you never have a TV script that is completely yours. The cathartic stuff I have to put into the playwriting. “Nancy Grace,” to me, is fascinating, though, because I feel like it is comforting in a weird way. There is such a stark line between the good people and the bad people. It is the opposite of what I do in my writing. Sometimes it is good to live in a space where it is very clear who is good and bad. Sometimes she’s wrong, but it is fun.
    KG: I used to watch a lot more “American Justice.” Since I had my daughter, I haven’t been able to watch the dramatizations as much. But, “Nancy Grace,” I can look at it, and say I might not have had a good toddler day, but I didn’t do that. Nobody in my family will watch it with me.
    GG: I had to keep it a secret. At “Law & Order,” everyone made it very clear that they thought she was the devil.
    KG: Really?
    GG: Yeah. People thought her handling of the Duke lacrosse scandal was really wrong. And, she does have that lawsuit where the woman committed suicide after an interview.
    KG: What’s challenging about writing for the stage, and what’s easy about it?
    GG: What’s easier than TV and film is that the plotting is less of an issue than really having something to say. That’s the thing that is easier and harder. If you’re good at plot, you can write a really kick ass screenplay that ultimately doesn’t have anything to say. For theatre, you have got to have something to say. If you’re not good at plot, and I don’t think I’m great at it, in the theatre it doesn’t matter as much, because it’s not why people are there. They can watch plot on TV, so it’s more important to have a point of view. But, it’s hard to keep coming up with a good point of view.
    KG: A lot of times when you look at a body of work for a writer, especially from years and years ago, you realize, “Oh, they are writing the same three plays over and over again.” I don’t think we are allowed to do that anymore.
    GG: It’s so funny that you say that. Nothing enrages me more. I don’t tend to read theatre reviews, but there have been a couple of novelists. I remember reading reviews that said, “Ugh. She’s still dealing with her father issues? Please.” What are you talking about? Chekov kept dealing with the same issues over and over again. It is a contemporary idea that your demons are supposed to go away, and you are supposed to get new ones.
    KG: I remember, in Iowa, David Hancock came to teach a masterclass, and it was fabulous. We just talked, but one thing he said was that he has same six characters. No matter what he does. Do you have some of the same people that keep showing up and need to talk? Who are those people?
    GG: I tend to always have a character who is verbally abusive. The one thing I had wondered is that they had always been men. In this play, I let one of the women be. I think that I had been afraid to do that. Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, I had the sense that men who are verbally abusive are going to be more easily accepted by an audience than women who are. I had been a little cowardly about that. So, I always have a character who is a bit of a brute with language. That keeps cropping up. I also always have someone who doesn’t know who they are yet. Maybe we all have that character, though.
    KG: You mentioned a woman who was a verbal brute, which brings me to this question about feminism and playwriting. I ask this of a lot of people. Would you consider yourself a feminist playwright, or just a playwright? What do you think about that word? It’s almost a four letter word nowadays; it didn’t occur to me until a few years ago to wonder about it.
    GG: I tend to just think of myself as a playwright. Feminism – it becomes hard to know what it means. It was a word that was clearer – I mean, we’re still fighting for equal pay, but even having gone to a women’s college, I don’t think I have a clear definition of what that word means in 2010. And, for me, if I start thinking ideology, I feel like I’m not writing truthfully. I try not to write with any kind of agenda. I think any notions about feminism come into play when we’re talking about, for example, the statistics of who’s getting produced. When I can take my writer hat off, then I can be a little more activist.
    KG: When did you come to a point where you thought to yourself, “Oh, I’m good at this”? I mean, writers tend to admit that we’re always self-flagellating, “Oh, everything’s so horrible,” sitting in the corner grumpy because people don’t get your words right. But, at some point those that write, and who keep writing over the years, have to admit that they are good at it. Did you ever have a moment?
    GG: There is a moment. But, it wasn’t in theatre. It was when I was in college. I was at Barnard, and Columbia had a couple hours on a public access channel. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek soap opera. There was a night we were filming, and one of the scenes I had written was really cooking. Somebody made a comment to somebody else: “Who wrote that?” I remember that moment thinking that I might be good at this. That has really stuck.
    KG: I wanted to talk a little about class. One of the things I love about Becky Shaw is its ruminations on class. How class affects what people do – not just a lack of money, but what you’re brought up in. What you’re brought up to expect and why. How did you think about class in developing this play?
    GG: Well, I’m just fascinated by how people in this country will more readily talk about their sexual past or their drug past than they will about having been poor. There’s still a way in which it’s a thing we don’t want to talk about in this country. Our American mythology depends on believing that class is not determined, and anybody who works hard enough can leap out of a lower class into a higher class. I was interested in laying it bare a bit. I don’t know that I succeeded, but all I had in mind was that I didn’t want to not write about it. Because it is too easy to not write about it. This John Edwards scandal breaks my heart, because he was my guy when he first came out talking about the two Americas. It is too bad that the candidate who had a poverty agenda turned out to be a nightmare.
    KG: Class is really tricky. It pops up in strange ways. My daughter has all these stuffed animals on her bed. My friend said, “You want her to have one or two stuffed animals, because if she has more it is like she is white trash.” In one sense, the term is problematic for me, and then in another sense, I thought, “What are you talking about?” My friend was completely serious. Get rid of all them, because it’s a sign of class. In my home, where no one else was seeing it, we need to get rid of the stuffed animals. Yet I’m sure if asked her point blank questions about class...she’s much more willing to talk about her sexual history.
    GG: The white trash term is interesting, because I think some of the things that have been said about Britney Spears were almost ethnic slurs. We have a zeal at making fun of white poverty. Even someone like Britney Spears, who has become a multi-millionaire, will always be looked at as swamp trash. We have this mythology that you can get out of it, but people want to remind you of where this person came from.
    KG: Are there any plays about Britney Spears coming?
    GG: I have one. It is a one act; we did it in New York. That I had to exorcise, because I’m a fan, and I thought she was beat up. You’re living in Boston, now?
    KG: I am. I got out of grad school, and we asked how long we could live here before we move to New York. Now we’re here, and it’s a question of how I can be a working writer while living here. Boston’s new play scene is definitely not the same as other cities.
    GG: I imagine that gets into what kind of support and childcare do you have to come into New York, for even a very brief period.
    KG: Since having my second child, I have had three workshops. La Jolla Playhouse has been having the workshops for my play in New York for various reasons, and it’s been wonderful because I haven’t had to go to California. And, they have been wonderful, too, supporting me with childcare and being attentive to my needs as a mom. The work gets done, but at what price. You come home, and you’ve worked intensely for a week and then you can’t generate material for two weeks because you’re exhausted. But, you make it work.
    GG: Yeah, because the alternative is not to have them, and there’s a major cost to that if you’re the kind of person who wants them.
    KG: Are you coming for rehearsals?
    GG: I was just there for the start of rehearsals. I am going to come back twice, once for opening and also for that little part before they start previews to see if there’s anything I can help with. You are under commission at the Huntington?
    KG: Yes. I was a Huntington Playwriting Fellow. It used to be that they chose four writers and supported them over a two year period. The structure is a little different now. My class just ended in the fall, but I’ve been working with their education programs. I have done a commission once for them. And, I’m currently doing commission work on a play that was commissioned by another theatre that didn’t want it. The Huntington has recommissioned me to take another pass at it.
    GG: That’s great.
    KG: It is – because when that happens –
    GG: That’s a whole other discussion.
    KG: It’s hard, because you work on a piece and it becomes not only working on something you love and they don’t want it. All these crazy weird feelings.
    GG: Those are statistics I would like to see. Becky Shaw was commissioned by Humana, and they were committed to doing it. After Ashley was commissioned by a theatre that didn’t do it. I have heard that over and over again, and I almost feel like there’s a psychology, like how corporations don’t promote from within. The theatre doesn’t take them as seriously as plays that come in the door.
    KG: I don’t know what the statistics are about how many plays get produced through the commissioning process. But, I read something a bit ago that the best way that theatres support new work and writers who are “other” is by giving commissions. Because, that way they are supporting, but they don’t have to produce. If you produce, you risk your base will get mad.
    GG: That’s the danger. Commissions can become like consolation prices and an excuse not to produce people you think are not mainstream enough for your audience.
    KG: But, as a writer who makes most of their money through commissions or teaching, morally I’m not going to say, “I’m not going to take any more commissions until my sisters and I get produced.”
    GG: Totally. I felt that way about adjunct teaching. I always felt like I was scab labor. As long as I was willing to work for low money, they didn’t have to hire someone full time and give them health insurance. But, I wasn’t going to turn the jobs down either.

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