A Closer Look: form of a girl unknown
form of a girl unknown follows Amali, a 12-year old girl who finds herself on the edge of womanhood and is having trouble navigating her new world. To gear up for the public reading of her play on November 8th, playwright Charly Evon Simpson sat down with fellow Playwrights’ Week 2018 participant, Juliany Taveras, to talk about the play, her writing process, and the scary, but formative years of middle school.
JULIANY TAVERAS: What an honor and delight to get to experience the world of form of a girl unknown as it currently exists on the page. I am so thrilled to have been able to read it and to get to send along a few questions for you! As someone who is also drawn to writing younger characters (there's just something about being 12...), I was immediately captivated by your adolescent protagonist and the strength and unapologetic nature of her voice. What impulse or interest led you to explore the story of a middle-school-aged girl? Do you often find yourself writing younger folks?
CHARLY EVON SIMPSON: Middle school was such a crazy time for me. So much changed. I changed so much. I look back at that time and realize that so much of who I am now started then—my passions, my fears, my needs. When teaching, my favorite age group to work with is middle schoolers in part because of all the wacky changes happening and because they are both so young and so old at the same time. All of that played into my decision to explore the story of a middle school aged girl. My first real full-length play featured 12 year old twins and I have another play I wrote right before this one that had two younger folks in it. I am sure that helped lead to Amali, Finn, and Marina in this play. I really enjoyed writing these characters and connecting to my 12 year old self. Honestly, I think I am still trying to understand my 12-year-old self.
JT: A note in your script specifies that the three 12-year-old characters ought to be "played by adults…who really remember what it was like to be 12." Can you speak more to this choice/direction? How do you think about the function of age and youth on stage?
CES: The play is dealing with the transition between childhood and adulthood. For me that was a hard, weird, emotional time. I didn’t want a 12/13 year old who is going through all these things to have to play those things out on stage—and I didn’t want the audience to be so worried about the young actors that they weren’t listening to the play. Maybe it is because before being a playwright I was on my way to getting my master’s in social work and because I worked in schools a bunch. I love working with young actors and I love watching young actors, but I am aware that I wrote this as an adult looking back and I think having adults in those roles is a small way to acknowledge that. That said, if a group of teens want to do this play, then they totally should!
JT: There are a couple of really fantastic scenes in which Amali is alone with only us (the audience) and a few...materials. Her studies, if you will—whether it be a school questionnaire, a self-reflective chart presentation about her life, or a giant map. I loved these not only as theatrical devices, but also as a lens through which to think about process and character. Worksheets, charts, maps... did these inform your own writing process in any way? Often I wonder if there is any such thing as a singular "writing process," or if everything we bring into the world gets its own entirely unique big bang; how did the world of form of a girl unknown originate, expand, and eventually come together?
CES: I don’t usually use charts, worksheets, or maps—unless I am dealing with those things in the play themselves (for example, I have a play about a road trip and so I looked at maps a lot). I wish I did though! I remember drawing a bunch of little pictures in a notebook for this play—I guess they were like tiny maps now that I think about it. form of a girl unknown came in spurts and bursts. The first two scenes were written first, but everything after that came when it was ready. I often was drawing lines and arrows in my notebook between parts, trying to figure out how the play would come together. This play came in visions and moments. It came together when I realized what the final moment would look like and then it became about trying to get to that moment.
JT: In the script, the play opens with an epigraph—a quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also makes an appearance later on in the dialogue when two characters are discussing their schoolwork. I'm curious about your relationship to Shakespeare (perhaps currently as well as over time), and the role these allusions play in form of a girl unknown. Do you consider the two plays to be in conversation with one another? How?
CES: Honestly, it came to mind when I knew I was writing a play about a middle school girl. I was in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream twice in middle school (and once again in high school) and we read it in class. It was so important to my middle school life and, honestly, my theater life. I wanted to explore Amali having a connection with a text and it seemed like a smart idea to use the one I connected to as a 12/13 year old. So that is how it first made its way into the piece. And once I knew it had a place, I let it influence the story a bit. I knew I wanted the woods to be a place we explored, but once I had the A Midsummer Night’s Dream connection, I felt even more emboldened to let the woods be a place where things change form. I’m sure there are a few other little connections here and there, but I’m not sure I’d say they are completely in conversation.