The enigmatic playwright discusses her Florida roots, Ugly Lies the Bones and writing to heal.
Tell us about your childhood growing up. Could you tell us what your family is like?
- "I'm very close with both my immediate and extended family. My dad is a comedian and some very early childhood memories are of me, seated in the back row of comedy clubs, shouting proudly that my dad was onstage. My mom was the one who always took my brother and I to whatever cultural events we had access to, odd free shows in parks and libraries... basically anything that wasn't stand up comedy. Most importantly, on both sides of my extended family, I come from a big, loud group of storytellers... who are all funny. Who get together on a regular basis, where the main event is just... talking. Where stories and jokes compete with each other, where the only way to be heard is raising the volume and having a vicious sense of humor. I have cousins who are musicians, my dad and my uncle are comedians, my aunt is an artist – I think it's a background where expressing yourself was not just a value, but also a mandate."
What is your earliest memory of theater?
- "My earliest memory of theater is apparently fairly cliched for my age group, but I saw CATS on Broadway when I was about six years old. My parents had warned me that my best friend had seen it the week before and, horrified by the cats who roamed through the audience, screamed and wept for the majority of the show. I just remember the specialness of the whole experience – dressing up, wandering Manhattan, going into the biggest theater I'd ever seen, whose set spilled out into the hallways and lobby. As the lights went down, I remember gripping the seats both terrified and thrilled."
What was the first play you read/specific playwright's work you admired? Did this inspire you to pursue a playwriting career or was it something else?
- "I don't remember what the first play I read was – probably Shakespeare for English class. It didn't directly inspire me because I didn't totally understand it or that playwrights were people alive today, writing about contemporaneity. I wrote short stories, screenplays and poems. In high school, my creative writing teacher pulled me out of my science class into the hallway and scolded me for not entering a playwriting contest. When I told her I didn't have a play, she informed me that I would go home and write one... or else fail. I coyly wrote a play about a playwright who can't think of anything to write. This little one-act went on to win the national competition and was produced at The Kennedy Center the summer after I graduated high school. I had absolutely nothing to do with the production, but showed up with my mom opening night. The audience laughed, in unison, at lines I hadn't even realized were funny... That feeling of moving a group of people simultaneously, at having been the cause of a collective experience, was something I knew I'd spend the rest of my life trying to achieve again."
What has inspired you to write any particular piece of work? Could you give us a few examples of your earlier work and compare it to more recent work. How does it differ or relate?
- "I tend to write about a political issue that gets under my skin or that I feel numb to and don't understand. The writing process for me is about erasing that numbness, finding where human emotions live within a larger socio-economic, cultural, or political issue. Perhaps I won't always work this way, but right now writing is about getting in touch with my own empathy as I try to understand the world. I'm always looking for ways to write about my life in an indirect way. The longer I write, the more personal my plays are tending to be."
From my understanding, Ugly Lies the Bone is a unique take on what it means to understand pain and healing, through being able to displace yourself from it. Where did the inspiration come from to write this and what would you like audiences to take from Jess' journey?
- "This is an incredibly personal play for me. I grew up in a small town along Florida's space coast — This was an area that always prided itself in a belief in the future, in being forward thinking. I grew up under a literal banner that said "Welcome to Merritt Island — where dreams are launched." I went away to college around the same time as NASA's layoffs and the space shuttle program shutting down and came home to an area whose landscape drastically changed both physically and economically. Around the same time, my childhood best friend became a psychologist at a VA center in our town and the play grew from noticing a parallel between soldiers looking for a way to start over and the town itself looking for this same thing."
- "My most visceral memories from childhood involve watching shuttle launches from my roof, rockets that literally shook my house. Schools would stop, cars would pull off the highway, whether you were in a bank or a grocery store — everyone would pause their life for a brief moment, stand together, and silently look at the sky. I think the loss of this dream, which feels like a very American dream, the American frontier spirit, etc. — comes at a great cost. It has a ripple out effect on how we interact with each other. If you take away that communal hope, that capacity to explore, what is next? What does the next dream for our country look like? I don't have an answer, but think the play is set among those questions."
- "In general, I try to approach writing plays in the same way I would a love letter. Ugly Lies the Bone is a love letter to Florida. My hometown. My childhood spent on the beach, watching those launches. My VA psychologist friend's patients whose stories I grew to know intimately. The play is for someone I was in love with at the time of writing and trying to understand. By love letter I mean a place where you can share some memories, tell a bad joke. Love letters are hopefully written with honesty and where you try, with all the words that you have, to be vulnerable and let the other person know that they're seen."
How does it feel to have your work produced and brought to the stage? What is that process like and how much involvement do you have as a playwright?
- "There was a long time in my career as a playwright when I wrote plays, but never saw any produced. There was also a time when I only heard my plays in reading format... You write plays not to live on the page, but rather in actor's bodies and in designer’s minds so to finally get the opportunity for a total collaboration is so rewarding and something I hope I never take for granted."
- "I tend to like to be very involved in the production process and appreciate directors who invite the my voice into the process. I attended most rehearsals for Ugly Lies the Bone, had early conversations with designers, and sat through tech. I trust the director and designers completely, but there is both a strange and surreal joy to watch the pieces from your story suddenly animate."
Similarly, what has it been like bringing Ugly Lies the Bone to Roundabout?
- "Roundabout is a dream theater to work for. The dramaturg/producer/director of New Play Development Jill Rafson has been so supportive of this play and I for the past year and a half of development. She's always gives notes that you want to incorporate to, she identifies what you're trying to say; what the larger goals of the piece are. Everyone at Roundabout has been welcoming, eager, excited, and supportive. There is a positive and passionate attitude there from everyone I've met from the press office to fundraising to stage management. It's a unique theater where it really feels like everyone is on the same side, with the same goal, of staging this play in the best way possible."
Tell us about your education at Tisch, Hunters College, and currently Yale. Was there a particular instructor or experience that was especially crucial to your creative development as an artist?
- "Higher education has really been my artistic home for the majority of my adult life. As my friends like to tease me, I've been a professional student for some time, doing a BFA and then 2 master's degrees. I studied acting at NYU in the Strasberg Institute. Fairly soon after classes began, I knew I had no interest in acting, but stayed on and completed the training. I think all writers should act at some point in their lives – to give a solid sense of what lines are playable, comedic timing, and just the general hell that actor's have to go through, based on what you write. It was also beneficial for me to be the one writer in a group of actors – I always had friends eager and willing to read my pages, rehearsal space was available for me, and Strasberg hired me to teach Playwriting for the Actor fairly soon after graduating."
- "My first grad program at Hunters was a very special experience though – it was the first time in my life I was able to only write plays – without having to memorize lines for scene work in acting class. I'd always felt like an interloper playwright. Here, I studied with the brilliant playwright Tina Howe and the equally brilliant dramaturg Mark Bly. I could go on and on about what I learned during my time there, but mostly what they encouraged was a focus on bringing yourself to your craft, writing more personally, and from your own life experiences. Tina Howe was the first person to suggest that I try setting my plays in Florida – the act of doing that unlocked something in me. Mark Bly coached my thesis play during a very trying time in my personal life and rather than be overwhelmed by that, he forced me to write about it."
- "I'm still too close to my experience at Yale to say exactly what I'll take away from that program, but so far it's very close relationships with a larger peer group of brilliant actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs. Also, Sarah Ruhl, Jeanie O'Hare, and Dan LeFranc have continued to push me out of my comfort zone as a writer in innumerable ways."
What advice would you share with an aspiring playwright?
- "See as much theater as you can. Watch the audience as much as the stage. Pay attention to when people sit up in their seats, lean forward, lean on each other, look at the actors, or look at their feet. Then try not to study the theater... or else you end up writing about it. Allow yourself to be a vulnerable and sensitive person, deeply engaged with the world around you and the people in your life. Figure out what stories you, uniquely, can tell and trust that your truthful life experience is a worthy subject matter filled with many unexpected landmines."
Are you working on your next project already and if so, could you tell us a little bit about it?
- "I'm currently working on four new plays, in various stages of development. I have three commissions currently – for Roundabout, The Geffen, and South Coast Repertory. Those plays range from full draft to an incubator of an idea. I'm preparing for a reading on September 29th of a new play, that is not a commission, entitled This Flat Earth which will be produced at HERE by Colt Coer. And this May, I have a production of a new play in The Carlotta Festival at Yale University, which I'm looking forward to getting into pre-production on."
Some personal favorites: What is your favorite movie, book or TV show?
- "Book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, any and all poetry by WH Auden
- Movie:: An Affair to Remember
- TV: Breaking Bad, The Wire, (usually serious dramas), but Impractical Jokers makes me laugh harder than anything."