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A Closer Look: Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop 2017

Playwrights’ Corner
Black and white. On the left, a close of up Jen Silverman, her head tipped slightly down and to the right. She wears a sweatshirt and is framed from her shoulders up. On the right, Anna Ziegler, also from her shoulder up, smiles into the camera.

Scattered throughout the month of May, The Lark will host a series of readings in a culmination of the 2017 Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop. To help give you "a closer look" at the process, participating playwrights Jen Silverman and Anna Ziegler interviewed each other on their experience in the workshop, the plays they'll be exploring through their readings, and what's good on TV right now. Check out their conversation below!


JEN SILVERMAN: Tell me about your play in the reading series. What was your inspiration or origin point?

ANNA ZIEGLER: It had two origins – because initially it was two different plays! One came out of the desire to write about an arranged marriage and the other was inspired by these highbrow but also unquestionably flirty emails Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer wrote to each other (while at least one if not both were married to other people) that were published in the New York Times last summer. How these ended up inhabiting the same play had either to do with my needing to finish a commission before I had a baby or the ineffable nature of the creation of Art. Probably the former.

JEN: I'm obsessed with process and schedule - what does yours look like, when it comes to writing? Do you have routines or traditions or ways of working that you've carried over the years?

ANNA: The way of working that I’ve carried over the years, or my routine, is not to have a routine. I try not to write when I don’t feel like it (which is really very easy – it involves sitting around not writing) and to write when I feel inspired or am on a deadline (and the two often go hand in hand – deadlines are the best inspiration). I used to feel very guilty during long stretches of not writing and I’ve graduated to feeling merely guilty. But when I’m in a zone, all bets are off. I sometimes will stay up very late writing, like til after MIDNIGHT, and will occasionally (not very often) even skip watching that crucial hour (or three) of television after my kids go to bed. This is a choice not made lightly since I pretty much live for those few hours these days.

JEN: What are you most excited about right now? (Theater or otherwise.)

ANNA: I’m pretty excited about – in no particular order – springtime in New York City, trying out this place DŌ on Laguardia that purportedly sells all sorts of flavors of cookie dough that you can either eat on the spot or bake with (choice seems obvious), my 7 month old and the fact that he’s gonna have stuff to say soon enough, hanging out in Williamstown this summer while two phenomenal actors learn a bazillion lines for a two-person play consisting almost entirely of monologues (eek), Daniella Topol running Rattlestick (how lucky are they, and are we), and learning whether or not Paige is gonna inadvertently or intentionally out her parents as spies on The Americans (just to make sure we end with what’s most important).


ANNA: Your plays are so different and wonderfully impossible to categorize. What they seem to have in common is a way of looking at the world that's ever so slightly askew, as though they're peering through a lens that's tilted so we can see things from a perspective we never imagined. How would you describe your approach and its aims?

JEN: Oh man, I don't know. I'm obsessed with character. I'm obsessed with outsiders. I think the world is a much stranger place than we can admit to ourselves on a daily basis, in order to survive. I think it's also a more beautiful place. I think in a play, you have to reach a certain extremity - of experience, of emotion, of narrative possibility - to access what is surprising. And to me, what is surprising is often the thing that's beautiful. I also think humor is a language of truth and rawness and sometimes suffering. Dark comedy is often the way I can get to something dark and real without inviting sentimentality or cliché. 

Sometimes people will talk to me about a play of mine, about how "weird" it was, or how "absurdist"  - and this can be a good or bad thing, depending on the person - but to me, it all just feels real. I think more and more our world is mirroring the absurd. I'm less interested than I ever was in drawing boundaries between what is "realist" and what is "absurdist" - and that's maybe what you're talking about when you use the word "askew" (which is a word I love). I put my characters in circumstances that are sometimes heightened, bizarre, unexpected, but I'm always invested in how they genuinely seek to make sense of themselves and their relationships in those circumstances. I never see my work as farce or parody.

ANNA: Are there writers of other genres - novels, poems, movies - whose work you admire because it does what you also aspire to do? On a related note, you are at work on a collection of short stories. How does the impulse to write fiction differ from the impulse to write a play? Why does one idea become one and another idea the other?

JEN: There are a number of writers with whom I feel a kinship across genre. Maggie Nelson, Richard Siken, Murakami Haruki, Anne Carson, and Sara Majka are some of them. I've spent years watching movies by Takashi Miike, Wong Kar-Wei, Jim Jarmusch. I think these artists are connected in part by the very specific lens on the world that they have, the permeability of their characters, the porousness between pain and humor. There's an underlying language that, from the first time I encountered their work, I felt as if they were speaking to me in a way I could understand.

My collection of interlinked stories, The Island Dwellers, is coming out with Random House next year, and it's been a joyful process. My fiction-writing tools are very similar to theater - I remain obsessed with character, and for me plot is simply what a character does to get what he or she needs - but there is something incredibly freeing about writing fiction. With theater, I'm always thinking about event, about how the audience is invited into and held by an event. Fiction is intimate in a way that only first-person narrative can permit: you put someone's skin on, you slide behind their eyes. A book of stories is a journey a reader takes alone, whereas a play is a gathering place for a community.


ANNA: I hope this isn't too personal/prying, but you are engaged to a well-known and successful set designer. How do you two watch a tv show differently? (And what tv do you watch??)
 
JEN: Dane Laffrey is one of the best dramaturgical minds I know. The way he understands story and structure is unerringly sharp - I think his expertise in creating containers for stories feeds his understanding of the story being contained. As for TV, we watch a lot of stuff - Girls, Transparent, Top of the Lake, High Maintenance, Homeland, the usual things a lot of theater people watch. I think we watch pretty similarly, except in certain moments where it's clear he has a keen eye for details in a way that I don't. I remember when we were watching early seasons of The Affair, he'd clock when shots didn't line up - like when someone is wearing a certain accessory and then the camera pans away and comes back and that accessory is missing. I never catch that stuff, I'm always immersed in "who are the people/ what do they want." Laffrey notices both the big picture and the tiniest things at the same time, which makes him a really helpful person to read your first drafts.
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