Sunday, October 18, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 77: Winter Miller
Split screen, I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts called Greenfield until I was 12 and then moved with my mom to a series of smallish towns in Pennsylvania. I ended up at Quaker boarding school in PA.
I'm currently a nomad. I couldn't decide where I wanted to live and how I wanted to live in the world so I packed up all my things, put them in my dad's attic and bought a car. Actually I bought my dad's car. He's now walking everywhere. No, he has his own car. But it was a good deal. In any case, I'm hopping from town to town and boro to boro. Since last January I've been in Silver Lake, LA, Santa Monica, CA, Greenfield, MA, Lexington, VA, Clinton Hill Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a beach house in Rhode Island that I can't remember the name of, Hell's Kitchen NYC, and at the moment I'm writing this, I'm one day into Red Hook, Brooklyn. It's interesting for me, because I've always been very tied to home. As a child of divorce who moved an average of once a year throughout college, when I finally moved to New York I got an apartment and lived in it for almost ten years. So I'm going where it's least secure and reinventing my notion of home, for the moment. I bet this response is too long. Sorry. This is the unexpurgated version.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a comedy. I'm working on a sort of apocalyptic dark story. These are not related and it's weird to have written two plays within a month of each other and try to revise and rewrite them both when the worlds are opposite. Normally I rarely write plays. I have so little to say that would fill a play. But the apoco one is so dark that it's kind of a relief to go to the other absurd world on occasion. The really exciting thing for me is that I'm working with a group of gay youth in NYC with a company called Theatre Askew and I'm writing a play with and for them to perform. We've had auditions and our first meeting and these youth blow my mind.
Q: Your play In Darfur is coming up at Theatre J in DC in April. Can you tell me about that play and how it came about? That was a two-headed challenge, right? Where has it been developed?
A: Yeah I'm super excited that we're doing In Darfur in the nation's capital. I'd like to get an Obama in. Maybe Malia or Sasha. Kidding. I mean the adult Obamas. I'm really hoping to coordinate with groups like Enough! and Genocide Intervention Network and potentially others to really try to draw in legislators to see this play. It's one thing to read a news story or an op-ed about the suffering of people in Darfur and I think it's another to know these people as human beings. But also, the play makes everyone accountable, reporters, aid workers and Darfuris, so I think it poses some compelling questions about sacrifice and betrayal and in whose name.
The play was a Two-Headed Challenge, which is a commission offered jointly by The Guthrie and The Playwrights Center in MN. My mentor, was my former boss at the New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Nick Kristof. And if I can just put some plugs in here for some completely amazing folks any writer should know: I will forever be indebted to the hugely awesome Polly Carl for the work she did with me on this script--she is truly a phenomenal dramaturg and she knows how to put a play first and everyone's ego second. Another shout out to the director who was with me throughout the development of the piece, Joanna Settle, who is an extremely smart and specific director and with whom any writer, actor is designer is fortunate to collaborate with. But in addition some really great people got behind the play and were helpful in the development of it: Michael Dixon at the Guthrie, Mandy Hackett, Liz Frankel and Oskar Eustis at the Public and Marge Betley at Geva Hibernatus. The really great thing was that everyone involved recognized that this is a topical play and that it offers a way to spread awareness about something happening that if enough people were up in arms about and contacting their elected officials, we could force the UN /Security Council to stop the genocide immediately. So it was developed at those places above and then produced really quickly as a lab by the Public. All of that was in less than a year after the play was written. I was still writing the play while we were doing it at the Public which is why we closed it from reviewers. It was a beautiful production, I admire all the people involved. Then they did a very cool thing, they did a staged reading after the run at the Delacorte in Central Park, something they pretty much reserve for their productions of Shakespeare et al. Sitting al fresco with a bright night sky, the sound of planes occasionally buzzing above, that incredible cast and crew and 1800 people in the audience I'll take to the grave. And after the play, my heroes in the anti-genocide movement, people like Samantha Power, Kristof, John Prendergast, Mia Farrow, Omer Israel and Mark Hanis all spoke about Darfur.
Darfur is in really bad shape. It's not written about that much because it's sort of assumed the public is weary of hearing about it, but it's just gotten worse and worse there as aid workers are prevented from helping by president bashir and virtually all programs related to gender based violence are banned--so there are all these rapes in the camps that go unreported and that leave women without care for very violent situations. My friend Bec Hamilton who is an excellent writer and investigator just wrote a great article about it in the New Republic. You can find it here: http://bechamilton.com/?p=1419
If you are reading this and interested in Darfur, check out Enough! and Genocide Intervention Network for how to get involved here:
Q: Can you talk about 13P? What's up next?
A: I can talk about 13P, although much has already been said. I think it's an amazing producing model and I am grateful I was invited to join, even without a credit to my name. 13P was my first production, Josh Hecht directed my play called The Penetration Play. Josh is a fiendishly good director of new plays, it should be stated. (It may be that people frown on plays with lesbian sex and aggressive behavior because it's never been produced since. Or it's boring or terrible). But it got produced by 13P because the playwright is allowed to pick the play s/he wants to do, and in some cases, that may be our play we don't think anyone else will do. The next play is Julia Jarcho's American Treasure. Jarcho's so beyond cool that she's directing it herself and she's unafraid to name a play after a popular movie staring Nicholas Cage. There's info about it here:
Q: What is your day job?
A: I don't have one at the moment. I was a reporter for Variety which wasn't really me and although I had a sweet gig writing freelance for the New York Times, as the economy and the financial resources of that paper (and others) have tanked, I got squeezed out. Unfortunately, the ugliest part was that there was an editor there who resorted to taking my story pitches and then re-assigning them to staffers. Which is about the sleaziest unethical thing to do to a freelancer. So I called it a day. It turns out I make a great nanny. My developmental age is probably somewhere between 4 and 7, so I have a really good time watching other people's kids. I'm serious. I'd like to go to Africa and do theater work with communities that are in the midst of conflict--I was brought to Uganda to do something of that nature and it was an amazing experience. So I'd like to go to Burundi, Congo, CAR, Somalia etc and do work there. Which will require me lining up some grants for that kind of work, so that will sort of be a day job, finding loose change in the pockets of foundations. Here's the link to the Uganda thing, it's part of an upcoming feature documentary,
Talk about falling in love with a group of youths... these kids were amazing. We are still pen pals.
And I have fantasies about becoming a Bikram teacher. I'm all over the map. I'm really open to doing whatever for money that puts me in a position of working with people I respect and admire and I don't have specificities about what that specific field is. Generally if people offer me work I say Yes and then ask questions later.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My parents divorced before I was two. One day, I was probably about 6 or 7 and my mom and dad were sitting at my dad's dining room table. There was a partially eaten danish on the table. I think we had all eaten already breakfast, but the danish remained on the table. I went off to play matchboxes or something in the living room, aware that my parents were still at the table, discussing me or something related to me. I found myself wanting a second helping of the danish. I occasionally looked in, to see that the danish was still sitting there. But I didn't go in and get it. I don't know why. Waiting for an invitation? I think I secretly hoped they'd come into the other room and offer me more danish? They did not. In fact, I distinctly recall that I circled around and hovered, conscious that my dad was eating the last of the danish. It was gone. Then, only then, did I walk into the dining room, right up to them and ask for more danish.
The danish represents to me wanting to be loved, wanting to be noticed. I don't even really like danish, I prefer things made of chocolate. But I wanted to let my parents know that I was in sort of an ongoing distress mode. Only I didn't know how to tell them that and really, I wanted them to know it and do something about it.
So I think I write because in some way I've always felt on the outside of things, I've always wanted to feel like I have a place at the table. It was assumed that I had nothing to say for myself and they would talk about me while I played. So I write plays hoping that people will listen to these characters and their moral dilemmas and see their mistakes and in whatever ways see some portion of themselves in these people. And I hope that by being able to have empathy for the characters, by seeing pieces of ourselves in others that there's a chance to stretch our empathic capabilities. I'm not ashamed to say that I think our culture could do with a lot more compassion and a lot more love for our neighbors, ourselves, etc. I don't think this has much to do with the danish, I was just sort of doing product placement and hoping that if I said chocolate someone would read that and send me a chocolate bar like how it works on television when Jon Stewart says he likes Krispy Kreme on air, he gets donuts galore dropped off at the office. I shudder to think what arrives at the offices of Oprah. She probably gets children and pets mailed to her. Anyway, I kind of agree with Anne Frank, or what she's credited as saying: I still believe, in spite of everything that people are really good at heart. I'm exploring that goodness and occasionally, that badness.
Q: What is the purpose of theater?
A: Oh I think I may have touched on that in my earlier response. I didn't read these questions all the way through. I'm terrible at reading directions. I really should work on that.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater where it feels like there's a genuine discovery happening onstage. Even if the play is deeply flawed but there's just one monologue that has something so true that it breaks my heart in that moment--then that's the kind of theater I want to see. I like plays that explore the human condition. As long as it can provoke a genuine reaction in me--laughter, tears, surprise, total shock, or it illuminates a world I know nothing about, that's the kind of stuff I'm really into. One of my favorite theater experiences was/were the Checkov plays that Melissa Kievman and Brian Mertes produced at their house which is out in the country somewhere outside NYC (I'm terrible with geography). The plays would happen outdoors--they would use their actual house and everything around--the pond by the house, the trees in the yard, the upstairs window would have someone pop out to say a line and the staging would be sometimes messy and the scenic design would be phenomenal in its artistry even though it would just be household objects, and all this work, by everyone involved would be for just one performance. And in the middle of the play, after an act break would be a giant picnic. The audience would bring potluck and it would all get laid out and everyone, strangers and friends would get together and eat a giant meal. You could jump in the lake for a swim. You could hold someone's crying baby and walk out of the audience space and bobble the baby up and down til it was soothed and then return and nobody looked at you like you'd stabbed them in the eye with your program. And there was no charge, but you could donate money to whatever great cause they'd researched. It was basically ideal. You're outdoors. It's summer. It's good theater. You're being fed from a buffet. Girls are wearing loose dresses. Boys are wearing open shirts. You can sit in a chair or sit on the ground. You can kiss your date and/or hang out with old and new friends. It's everything that much of the theater I go to is not. It's the intersection of life onstage with the lives watching the stage. It's made with love, you feel it. They didn't do it this past summer but I'm hoping they see your blog and realize how much it meant to so many people and they should put their whole lives on hold just to please an unruly group of people who love what they created.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Hmmm. Find a really good dramaturg, someone you can trust to read your work and give you honest feedback that propels you forward. I recommend Josh Hecht because he's so smart and so good at giving insight. But it's about finding the person who you connect with and who knows how to give feedback. Also, one time when I was trying to write a play that would be "commercial" enough for what I saw in the marketplace and I was not writing anything, I sent an email to one of my professors from grad school, Anne Bogart and asked if she'd have coffee with me to discuss something or other. She was like, look, you have to write the play you want to write, there's no other option. And I'm not going to sit and have coffee with you to tell you that. You know what you need to do so do it. At first I was sort of taken aback, like whoa, where's that totally nurturing director from grad school...? And then I was like, she's right, what a favor to tell me to stop talking to other people about what's not working with what I'm trying to write or my process and just write. (I call this unhelpful part of my process procrastiwriting) And to not bother writing what I think the market will bear. Those who can write what the market wants are probably able to do that at least in part because it's in fact what they want to be writing. Or they wrote what they wanted and that it was scooped up by producers came as something of a surprise. I'm totally making this up, I have no idea what I'm talking about. It's a little like asking me about how to hang a heavy picture frame on the wall, I've done it plenty of times but I'm no expert. First find the studs in the wall. I don't know, knock on the wall, they're like sixteen inches a part and sooner or later you'll find one. Use a level, when the bubble is in the middle, you're golden.
Q: Links for upcoming workshops etc and any other plugs?
A: plugs! :