A Closer Look: SISTREN
Set in an absurd yet austere future that feels a little like the past and a little like the present, Sistren tracks a mother and daughter as they manage their multiple spouses. In anticipation of the public reading of her play on November 9th, Erin Buckley sat down with fellow Playwrights’ Week 2018 writer Charly Evon Simpson to talk about the play’s background, thematic juxtapositions, devised matriarchy, and feminist company.
CHARLY EVON SIMPSON: Where did the inspiration for SISTREN come from?
ERIN BUCKLEY: You know, it came from a few different places. I was thinking a lot about the nature of partnerships, monogamy, and the future possibility of having kids. On the other extreme of that, I’m riveted/stunned/freaked out by polygamy – and also, it always made me so mad because I never understood why the women didn’t get to have multiple partners. Why are the dudes always in control? So, that’s how I started thinking about creating a world where the patriarchy is inverted: a matriarchal polygamist society.
I’m also always thinking about writing for the company of actors with whom I’ve been so lucky to work repeatedly – many of whom are able to join me for Playwrights’ Week. I wanted to create a world that could be filled with a lot of my favorite actors – with space for many fierce female actors.
And I’d been thinking about writing a part for my actor-mom (Candy Buckley). We’d been talking about what the great roles were for men and had been talking specifically about King Lear. And I got to thinking: What would a female King Lear look like? I wanted to create a part for my mom where she could take up a lot of space and be really grounded. That became part of the experiment for me across the board in the piece: to think of creating roles and, therefore, creating space for women that allowed them to activate energy that we normally only see men occupy onstage. Similarly, I was interested in seeing what it would be like to have men occupy energy that is traditionally reserved for roles women play. It got me to thinking that much of what I conceive of as female and male energy actually has a lot to do with power. And I set about shaping a world in which women have a lot of power – and control.
CES: Something I loved about SISTREN is that it feels like it is teetering on edges, on boundaries. The play is fast-paced, but the world of the play feels slower. Some of the heaviest themes are discussed in the lightest ways. I’d love to hear more about how you found this delicate balance between “opposites” in the play.
EB: When I was a kid, my most crucial conversations with my mom would always happen as I was heading out the door. My most heartfelt talks with my friend Brian happened when he was trying to drop me off at my apartment building in New Haven with groceries from the health food store. I came out to my mom on AOL Instant Messenger. My most intimate confessions to my buddy Ryan happen via voicemail. It’s as though I don’t know of any other way to have those conversations than in these liminal moments. I love the juxtaposition of high and low, heavy and light, intense and absurd because it feels like real life to me. And that juxtaposition also tickles me. Part of what I was thinking about as I was writing this script was what would get my actors to the precipice of laughing. Humor is very tied in with intimacy to me. Those moments on SNL when performers are almost – but not quite – breaking are the juiciest moments to watch. I want this play and this world to be riding that edge of absurdity and intimacy.
CES: How does SISTREN fit with the rest of your work? Does SISTREN concern topics/themes that you find yourself exploring in most of your work?
EB: I’m very interested in creating space for women in my plays. So, SISTREN is very similar to my other plays in that regard. It’s also connected in that I’m writing for a company of actors I love. It’s similar in that it has a sense of humor throughout but also deals with real human relationships and emotions.
The thing that’s different about this play – and which I’m so looking forward to continuing to explore in Playwrights’ Week – is that the characters use this weird/made-up/antiquated-yet-futuristic speech. So, it’s stylized and requires the attack you’d need to take on a classical text – even though it is most definitely not a classical text. I love that the world of this play feels partly familiar and partly otherworldly. I also really like playing with extreme language.
CES: I’m always curious about how writers write. So, what is your process? Do you have a routine you like to follow or is every play’s process a bit different?
EB: I tend to start thinking about ideas for a while – mulling them over until something concretizes in my head – whether it’s an image or a relationship dynamic or some song or a specific physical space – and then, finally, I write a first draft longhand. And the first draft is always pretty stream-of-conscious. I outline my screenwriting, but I let my playwriting flow where it wants. I like discovering it without having a preconceived notion of where I want it to go exactly. My friend Ryan quoted some famous playwright to me – maybe it’s Craig Lucas – who said you have to allow yourself to write through the arc of the thing before you go back and edit. And I find that’s become my gospel. I can’t interrupt the initial flow of the play that wants to come forward. I need to allow myself to birth the thing first. And to let it be raw and messy. And then to go back and to work on it only after I’ve written a full first draft. And had some time away from it. I then type the longhand draft up, which allows me to digest what I’ve written. But I’ve become really superstitious about avoiding looking at pages before I’m done writing the first draft. I don’t want any judging or editing to enter the process early. I don’t want any feedback. I just want to allow the rough draft to be rough and to unearth itself.
Once I have a draft ready to share, hearing the piece read by the actors for whom I wrote it is profoundly significant. I don’t fully know what I’ve got until I hear my actors read it. Actors are integral collaborators to me. The feedback I’ve received from them has shaped this play and all of my plays.
One thing that has been invaluable to me is that I’m part of the Writers Shift that Madeleine George and Anne Washburn started. The Shift is a recurring silent retreat that happens every few weeks someplace in the city, and the opportunity to go somewhere to write quietly and to be around a bunch of other writers doing the same thing has been really useful and productive time for me. The quality of the work I’m able to get done and the level of focus in the room are really special. There’s coffee and tea and trail mix to distract ourselves with when we need to stretch and get away from a screen. And we’re not allowed to talk to each other or make eye contact or use the internet. It’s the strangest feeling at first, and then it’s just totally liberating. And there are all of these fancy-pants writers writing next to you, so it makes you think: I’ve gotta get crackin’!