Nov 6, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 89: Marielle Heller
Hometown: Alameda, CA which is in the East Bay Area.
Current Town: New York
Q: Tell me about your upcoming show, Diary of a Teenage Girl.
A: The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a play that I have adapted from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. It's the story of a fifteen year old girl who is growing up in the 70s in San Francisco who is sleeping with her mother's boyfriend. That's the short answer. Really to me, it's the most honest coming of age story of a young girl I have ever come across. It pulls no punches. It's a look into the mind of a really precocious, really curious teenager, who is exploring her sexuality, and learning about herself through sleeping with her mother's boyfriend. It's not a black and white story of pedophilia, nor is it a lolita story. It's looking at a really complicated situation purely from the persective of the fifteen year old girl- through her fifteen year old lens, only further complicated by the time and place in which she lives. And surprisingly, it's really funny.
Q: How did you come to adapt this graphic novel?
A: Well I read the book, which my sister gave me for Christmas, I closed the cover and immediately called the publisher and just babbled something about wanting to make this into a play. I didn't really know what I was talking about. And after many months of correspondence with the publisher and eventually Phoebe, who seemed pretty on board, I got patched through to her agents who promptly shut me down. I got no after no. It didn't look like this was going to go any further, but one day I realized I wasn't willing to give up on this. I had never known so surely that I wanted to work on a project before, so I just called the publisher back and told her I wasn't going to take no, I didn't think she had taken me seriously, and I wanted a chance to show her what I wanted to do with the book. I ended up doing a pretty extensive presentation for her, and eventually got the theatrical rights to the book. That process took about 10 months. And from there, I had to actually start writing!
Q: Is this your first play? What challenges did you find in adapting someone else's work?
A: This is my first play, and the project which has gotten me into writing in a real way. It's been immensely challenging to adapt this book which I so revered (I understand now why people say it's easier to adapt a bad book than a great one). I felt such loyalty to Phoebe's work, but I had to get over that eventually. It just wasn't serving the play. And since then she and I have had great conversations about what adaptation means. She essentially had to adapt her personal diaries in order to write this novel- condense characters, fudge dates and timelines, etc., and she was the one who actually pointed out to me that I went through a similar process with writing the play. It's like the story has gone through two major meat grinders and has come out the other side... and it's been especially exciting to see that she still recognizes her story in the play.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I've gotten into writing screenplays. It's been amazing because Diary kind of came along and swept me up into this new world, and opened up a whole different path to me that I hadn't really considered before. I have started writing with a partner, Cailin Goldberg-Meehan. We have one completed screenplay, which is about two nerdy fifteen year old girls (I clearly am working out some long buried issues from my childhood) who are overacheivers, and have never really socialized, who try to turn their social status around in one day, and make out with the boys of their dreams, and everything goes terribly wrong. It's a funny teen comedy about girls. And we're working on a number of other scripts. It's been really wonderful.
Q: You're an accomplished actor. How has your acting experience informed your playwriting or vice versa?
A: I think that everyone who works in the theater is constantly studying story. And whether it's conscious or not, we are all aware deep down how story functions, and what drives it. I realized I knew a lot more than I expected about what works and what doesn't, especially about how things sound coming out of actors' mouths, and how dialogue flows and beats need to build. It was easy for me to imagine myself in the play and consider that I would be the one feeling the pain if the play dragged. But I feel like really I'm just learning about this whole new craft of writing, and it's a journey that's got a similar timeline to acting: you're never done! And since writing, I'm sure my perspective as an actor has shifted. How could it not? It's probably just made me way more of a wise ass (just kidding... I hope).
Q: If you will, please tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was 12 years old my family went fishing at a trout farm and I fell in. I remember seeing all of the fish swim away from me in all directions, and feeling them slime up next to me. I emerged soaking wet and so embarrassed. My dad, who had recently seen Dancing with Wolves, called me Swims with Trout all summer. Maybe I've never recovered.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Just when I think I know what type of theater person I am, it changes. I love theater that tells stories we haven't heard before, that is somewhere really honest and vulnerable even to the point of painful awkwardness. I love just seeing people really try and really put themselves out there. I guess the only theater I don't like is lazy theater (you know who you are).
Q: What advice do you have for an actor just starting out?
A: Start writing, or composing or something. It will only help. It's so difficult to be an artist who has to wait for other people to tell you when you can create. Find ways to make your own projects, whether by writing them or whatever. Just don't only spend your time auditioning because it will crush you.
Q: What advice do you have for a playwright just starting out?
A: God I have no idea. Just watch yourself with feedback, monitor it if you can. Notice when you aren't open enough to it, and when you're too open to it, and constantly check yourself on it. It's such a fine balance, and can affect everything.
Q: Plugs please:
A: Diary is going to be coming to New York in March to 3LD co-produced by New Georges. Check out our website: www.Diarytheplay.com and come and see the show!
Below is perhaps the best play trailer I've ever seen. --Adam