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A Closer Look: Claire Kiechel

Playwrights’ Corner
Claire Kiechel

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, Nick Gandiello (The Blameless) talks with Claire Kiechel (pictured left) about her new play, Pilgrims.

NICK GANDIELLO: Hey Claire! I love your play. It's completely original, and you're so deftly using elements of sci-fi and horror to dig into some essentially human problems. I was immediately struck by how carefully and specifically you observe the characters' interactions with each other, as well as their internal experiences. That made me wonder what your process was like writing Jasmine - a robot. What was it like for you, tracking her experience? Different than the human characters, or not really? 

CLAIRE KIECHEL: Hi Nick! Good question. Jasmine comes from the larger question I had while I was writing this play - what does it mean to perform the way others want us to? So how does a real soldier have to perform the role of "soldier?” How does a young woman have to perform "desire?” How does society tell us the ways we can and cannot perform, and how do our partners and friends and colleagues play a part in calcifying these roles for us? 

Jasmine is the extreme version of this question. She is programmed to give people what they want, and programmed not to have any of her own desires. Or that's how she's programmed to appear, at least.

While I was writing this play, I was working at a restaurant and thinking about hospitality in this country. Jasmine is definitely an American robot. She has been built to fulfill the specific fantasy of American servitude. If you go on a cruise or visit an American theme park, you'll notice there is a similar tone that many of the workers take - this weird, friendly, benevolent tone, sometimes a little sing-songy or rehearsed. It's very calming, it takes you back to second grade or something, because it allows you to forget the other person is a human being capable of anger, or sadness, or a personal identity. I think anyone who has worked in the service industry has occasionally felt the pressure to perform this kind of emptiness. And there are different degrees for sure. I think certain airlines actually advertise their flight attendants are allowed to have personalities, whereas others emphasize the more sacred, often female, duty of in-flight servitude. 

Jasmine is the natural extension of this desire - we want our serving class to be robots, because then we don't have to think about the underlying exploitation in the relationship. At the same time, I wanted to play with the great convention in science fiction of robots having underlying motives and real feelings. The fear that the robots are not quite as empty as they appear. The fear that an other's inner world is just as real as your own. There is a reason Jasmine is the only character to have a name in the play. 

NG: That's really interesting about performing a kind of emptiness.  The other characters, soldier and girl, perform for each other as well.   It would seem that play - role-play, in particular - is a tool toward healing in the story, but also maybe toward deeper damage. Could you tell me a little more about how that dynamic developed? 

CK: I am always thinking about role-playing – why we do it in life, and also why we do theater at all, why we like to watch people playing other people onstage. Do you think about this, or is that just me? 

For Pilgrims specifically, there are two kinds of role-playing - there's the actual role-playing games the characters improvise (detective/femme fatale etc.) and then there are the more societal roles they both perform. 

The first kind, the games, arrive because the play is about two traumatized individuals who are trying to escape their histories. Right off the bat, you have two characters who don't want to talk about their pasts - so all you have left is their present and their future. Since they're quarantined on a spaceship, their present is limited, and they have conflicting ideas of what they want their future to be. As a result, make-believe or role-playing becomes the only outlet for them, the only way they can be vulnerable. And sure, these games can lead to deeper damage – we're the most dangerous to ourselves and others when we are the most vulnerable. And sometimes something can happen that heals one person and damages another. The same action does not always have the same result. 

But I think you're also bringing up the larger role-playing that's going on in the piece. In the same way that Jasmine performs robot-ness, the girl and soldier perform girl and soldier-ness. These are roles they aspire to, the roles they resent, the roles they've gotten stuck in. I am interested in what is claustrophobic about being a girl or a soldier. What do these roles allow you to do? How does society tell you you're supposed to perform? How do you rebel?

This kind of insistence on societal roles can sometimes prevent people from connecting with others. One of the reasons the soldier leaves Earth to go back to this other planet is because he's so sick of the role he's been forced to perform - the role of "veteran." He feels alienated from everyone, because no one wants him to truly talk about his experiences. There was a quote I read from a soldier returning from Afghanistan, something like "every civilian wants to think the war happened on another planet." I think we do a very good job of forgetting that our wars are just a plane ride away, I think we ask our veterans not to break our fantasies. I find that kind of role-playing more dangerous, because it's harder to escape, and the consequences are farther reaching. 

NG: That's fascinating about the larger role-playing in society, and you're expressing it powerfully in the play. And I do think about why we like watching people pretend to be other people onstage! And on screen. I think most often about the kinds of stories a culture indulges in at any given moment and which clichés it embraces and why. Which brings me back to the "other planet" in your play. It seems like there are certain ideas within the play about what goes on, on the alien planet, and certain truths that are either unknown or denied. The mystery of the planet they're traveling to - and the true reasons they each have for going there - are haunting to me. Did you have any specific inspiration or models for the alien planet that soldier and girl are traveling to? 

Nick! The planet! I'm glad you're haunted by it! That's what I want to do with this play, so I don't know how much I want to reveal to people who haven't seen or read it. I will say that I was thinking about what a "new world" means to different people, and the kind of fantasies and anxieties we project upon a place we haven't been to. I was also thinking about how these kinds of fantasies can be dangerous. For instance, the founding myth of the American "Pilgrims" still permeates today’s culture, yet we often don’t talk about the dire consequences their arrival meant for the Native Americans who were already here. Honestly, I get nervous when I hear about the discovery of a possibly habitable planet like Proxima b, because many people are like, "let's go!" Space colonization is still colonization, isn't it? 

If you're asking more about the particular topography of the other planet, while I was writing the play, I was looking at a lot of Henry Darger. My sister introduced me to Darger when she was working at the American Folk Art Museum. He was this amazing reclusive artist in Chicago who, in the middle of the 20th century, wrote and illustrated a 15,000 page work depicting a fictional war on a fictional planet, called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger's work is so surreal and violent and beautiful (and it's about young girls and soldiers) so I kept coming back to it as I was writing as a way to get into the right space.