Exchanging ideas: An interview with Playwright Eleanor Burgess

Playwright Eleanor BurgessGrowing up in Brookline, playwright Eleanor Burgess started seeing plays at the Huntington almost 20 years ago. In recent years, her plays have been produced at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, and The Niceties marks her Boston debut. Before rehearsals, she spoke with Director of New Work Charles Haugland about how her life experience has informed her plays — and vice versa.


Charles Haugland: What first drew you to writing plays?
Eleanor Burgess: My thoughts come out as dialogue. The way my brain works is that I’ll think, “hey, here's an idea,” and then my brain summons another voice to say, “wait, is that idea right?” My thought process is less of a stream of consciousness and more of a dialogue or debate between three or four different streams of consciousness. It was only when I moved to London after college, and started to see a lot of theatre by emerging and contemporary writers, that I realized playwriting was something people actually did, and decided to give it a try. But once I did, it felt very natural.

After your return from London, you became a Huntington Playwriting Fellow (2011-2013) — and since then we have held workshops for two plays: Start Down in 2014, which went on to win the Alliance/Kendeda Competition, and Sparks Fly Upward in 2017. What stands out to you about your time working at the Huntington?
The Huntington Playwriting Fellows program marked so many firsts for me. Getting the fellowship was the first time a theatre said, “we like what you’re doing and want to support you as you keep doing it.” It's difficult to express how much that sort of encouragement can mean to an early-career writer. Then, the 2014 Summer Workshop for Start Down was my first time working on one of my pieces with actors — which meant my first time working on one of my plays as a play, instead of as a script on paper. I learned so much about how a scene works, about when a character is complicated enough to let an actor dig in. Then in the summer of 2017, I had the chance to return to the Summer Workshop to work on my new play, Sparks Fly Upward, a play that's wildly different from The Niceties. The freedom to take that chance and experiment with a different side of my writing was invaluable.

Why did you start writing The Niceties?
The Niceties was inspired by an incident that happened at Yale in the fall of 2015, and the conversations and arguments that cropped up in its wake. I became obsessed with how dysfunctional those conversations and arguments became —with how deep the divisions in this seemingly unified community really ran. I didn't know what to think, and when I don't know what to think, I start writing to try to find out.

A common concern in your plays has been how the way we think about education in our culture shapes our lives; Start Down delves deeply into how ed-tech is changing both how we teach students and what we’re preparing them to go out and do. The Niceties uses a conversation at a university as a launching pad to a broader cultural discussion. Why has theatre made sense to you as a place to explore those questions?
An important part of my background is that I studied history, not theatre, as an undergraduate, and I worked as a high school history teacher for several years before I decided to go to graduate school to study writing. I think of theatre as a bit like a grown-up version of a really great classroom — a place to ask deep questions and consider multiple, conflicting, complicated points of view. I tend to be particularly obsessed with the questions of how we know what we know, and how the stories we tell ourselves about the past affect our present — topics I've been studying from one angle or another for years.

This play has had two developmental productions, one at Contemporary American Theater Festival and the other at Portland Stage Company. I was surprised that you said a lot of audience members want to figure out whether you are closer to Janine or to Zoe. How do you respond to that question?
I’m not Janine, and I’m not Zoe. Or, I’m Janine and I’m Zoe. I think both women are right in many ways, and wrong in others. The play explores the gaps between them, so we can ask ourselves why those gaps exist, where the truth actually lies, and how we ought to speak to each other across disagreements. How we make change. The real point of the play isn’t either characters’ point of view — it’s the hopefully more patient, more nuanced conversations that the audience has after the play ends.

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