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A Closer Look: Benjamin Benne

Playwrights’ Corner
Benjamin Benne

Take "A Closer Look" at the stories being told in this year's Playwrights' Week festival with this series of interviews, of the playwrights and by the playwrights!

In this installation, Claire Kiechel 
(Pilgrims) talks with Benjamin Benne (pictured left) about his new play, at the very bottom of a body of water.

CLAIRE KIECHEL: I loved your play at the very bottom of a body of water. To begin, I am really interested in the way food is used in the play. Your main characters, Marina and Taishi, have such specific relationships to food, specifically fish, and seem to use their food as a way of connecting. The desire to want others to taste their food seems to be a desire to be seen and known, and you play with the carnality of fish and sexuality around food throughout the play. What is food to you? And can you talk a little about where this aspect of the play came from? 

BENJAMIN BENNE:I love that this is your first question because musing on fish (and people's connections and associations to them) was the impetus for writing at the very bottom of a body of water. In fact, I affectionately refer to this piece as "the fish play" for short. From that exploration emerged two characters with strong associations to fish as food. For Marina, it's a ritual meal of catfish soup and, for Taishi, it's a family trade of making sushi. Food, specifically a penchant for catfish, connects them; but it also becomes an opportunity for a cultural exchange because they're both used to preparing it very differently. Writing this piece made me think about how food is unique to a culture and how the sharing of food can be an opportunity to experience (and enjoy) another's culture. But food is also unique to an individual based on their personal taste; knowing someone's favorite food and preparing it for them can be a very intimate act. So exploring Marina and Taishi's relationship on those levels felt natural and satisfying.

CK: "The fish play" – that’s great. It does feel like food in this play is used as a way of connection and also transcendence. I love the part where Marina takes a bite of Taishi's catfish and an entirely new dimension of the house is revealed. It makes me think about how you're playing with physicalizing the emotional world of the characters. You've literally written into the script "moments of transcendence." What are your characters trying to transcend? And how do you hope these moments feel to an audience member?

BB: Originally, these sections, now dubbed "moments of transcendence," weren't designated any differently than the other stage directions. However, in the rewriting process, I was asked if those moments were supposed to feel theatrically elevated and I always imagined they would be; so I made them a convention with an official title in the script.  When I think about what the characters in this play have in common, it's that they are all (for various reasons) isolated and deeply lonely. The thread of the "moments of transcendence" is when a character connects in a meaningful way with Marina, the central character. These are all moments of overwhelming emotion for the two characters - it's a moment of "awe" or "ah-ha" and in that moment they transcend their loneliness and enter an ecstatic state of togetherness. What came naturally as a projection of this ecstatic state was that it be accompanied by a supernatural occurrence: an origami crane begins to independently float or fly around the room, ghostly orbs begin to appear, or a cloud forms around a person's body. My hope is through those images the audience feels a sense of awe that's similar to the characters' ecstatic state.

CK: Do you consider this play magical realism? Were you inspired by any authors who play with similar conventions?

BB: So "the fish play" was part of a trilogy that explored mortality; all three pieces featured ghosts that existed in the world alongside the "living" characters. So I've certainly had people refer to my work as "magical realism" and I've even used the term as a shorthand when people ask what my writing style is like. As a Latinx writer who writes plays that are political and feature the supernatural, I do check off the boxes to fit that genre.  However, I recently had a friend of mine, who is a professor, share the text with his students and they concluded that the piece only conformed to the "magical realism" genre half of the time because, while some of the supernatural occurrences are mundane magic, other moments use the conventions of fantasy and dream to justify those moments; I'm fascinated by this analysis. In a larger sense, I have a complicated relationship to the term and have actually never read the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Part of why I object to the label is that, in the theater world, it's been taken on as a blanket term to describe a range of styles that don't conform to a traditional realism model.  I've had conversations with other writers who have felt pigeonholed by the label because it doesn't accurately suggest how they're playing with form, time, and space.  I'm still unsure if I want to develop a new term that I feel is a more accurate branding for my work or if I will just make my peace with the term "magical realism."

CK: I really agree with you about everything you're saying. I think magical realism is a strange term in theater because it actually comes from a relatively recent trend of novels (Marquez maybe being the most famous). Whereas, I think theater has always had elements of the "unreal" - going all the way back to the Greeks with their furies and gods, and Shakespeare with his ghosts and magic. Historically, isn't naturalism actually the newcomer on the block since it only popped up in the late 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg and all those white guys? I guess my question for you is, do you think the current theater landscape relies on the assumption that, as you call it, the "traditional realism model" is the norm and anything outside has to be named? If so, is there a danger to this? Do you find it political to write outside of this model? 

BB: Yes, you're so right! Realism totally is the newbie, yet it certainly does feel like it's considered the norm these days. Particularly, when I'm thinking of folks outside of the theater world (who are potential audience members) and I say "play," they're going to think Shakespeare and then probably Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill, right? I think this is partly because that's what most people are exposed to when they study drama in school. They're likely to read Death of a Salesman or The Crucible, or some sort of well-made-living-room-domestic drama that’s considered a "masterpiece" or "classic" written by a white man, and those plays will be produced at the high school level and inevitably pop up over and over again in local theater companies' seasons. Even as a theater major in undergrad, the bulk of plays we studied were realism and written by white men. Upon graduating, I was asked who some of my favorite Latino playwrights were and I was faced with an awful fact: I didn't know any. I think the danger there (if there aren't already some obvious implications) is that many contemporary plays, that I've now been exposed to, feature a range of voices and ways to present stories that aren't strictly "realistic." I don't think plays that aren't realism are breaking the mold in some radical way but I do think they get treated and talked about that way. I wish there was more of an effort to introduce audiences to these works because they are just as valid in terms of form, and maybe then they wouldn't have this black sheep connotation to them.

CK: Gosh, yes! I also wish there would be more of an effort to introduce audiences to different kind of works early on. Perhaps we could change our conception of what a "play" and a "playwright" should look like. 

BB: That would be an important step forward.  I'm not saying get rid of The Crucible, but how about we add Maria Irene Fornés to the curriculum, yeah?

CK: It was only after I read a Fornés play that I wanted to be a playwright. More Fornés for everyone is the answer, I think. At like, age ten. 

BB: Yes, I love me some Fornés!  I feel like she, along with the Sarahs (Kane and Ruhl), has been highly influential on my current playwriting trajectory.

CK: What does "theatrical" mean to you? What do you want to see more of on stage? 

BB: I'm hearing more and more conversations about what makes a piece of writing theatrical rather than suited for television or film. Going back to the realism/naturalism discussion, I think a lot of folks are writing for the wrong medium because, while I enjoy watching slice of life and mundane action, I don't think that style maximizes what the theater has to offer. What makes theater unique is that there are living, breathing bodies in space before the audience so I think a lot about how those bodies can move. I think about how to push the limits of the human experience on physical and emotional levels. Because theater is limited in terms of space (physically) and time (there's no pause button), I also find it essential to appeal to the audience's imagination. I'm sick of seeing elaborate, literal sets. I prefer plays that can utilize a bare stage and maximize the use of lighting, audio, and the audience's imagination to tell the story. Furthermore, historically, the theater has been a space for stories that are challenging and that's what I expect when I see a play. Generally, I'm growing weary of the merely cerebral/intellectual and overly conceptual. I want to see strong, specific storytelling that has heart and soul and oozes with honesty.  I want to engage emotionally and spiritually with the work - not just think about it.  

CK: I don't think at the very bottom of a body of water could ever be a film which is what makes it exciting. You trust the audience to make their own imaginative leaps and emotional connections. Going back to the play, what are your goals for this Playwrights Week workshop? Is there anything in particular you're looking to explore? 

BB: I actually had a workshop of this play in Seattle with a company called Umbrella Project earlier this year. Playwrights' Week is going to let me pick up where the last one left off. My biggest issue with the piece the last time around was the momentum of the first half of the play felt like it stalled multiple times. In reaction, I cut beats from nearly every scene in that part of the script to improve the pace and amp up the mystery. These revisions haven't been tested with actors yet so I'm anxious to see how effective they are. I want to get very specific about beat work and language. I'm also going to be zeroing in on Lela's arc in the play; I think there's still untapped potential there for me to explore.

CK: I've heard great things about the Umbrella Project. Do you live in Seattle? What is it like being a playwright outside of New York? Is it amazing?

BB: I just moved to Minneapolis two months ago to do a residency at the Playwrights' Center as a Many Voices Fellow.  The support at the PWC has been astounding and my eyes are being opened to what is happening in theater on a national scale.  Previously, I was living in Seattle for about four or five years. And it took me some time but I formed a community of collaborators who were perfect for the type of work that I wanted to make. I can't speak to what it must be like to be a playwright in New York - although I am curious about giving that a try at some point - but in Seattle, I felt nurtured and supported by those surrounding me.  There were a number of companies that I worked with there that valued developing new works and young voices like Parley, Forward Flux Productions, Annex Theatre, and Umbrella Project. So, I didn't feel like I was in constant competition for opportunities to put my work forward and, in that sense, I could really focus on my craft while feeling safe to take risks.