Nov 9, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 90: Carly Mensch
Hometown: Harrison, New York.
Current Town: NYC, Hell's Kitchen.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished two new plays. The first, Oblivion, is about moral relativism Or rather, how we teach ourselves single-entendre principles in a morally relative universe. The play starts with a lie - a high school teenager lies to her parents - and quickly expands into larger questions of belief and guidance (where we go to for answers to big questions). The play is also about Pauline Kael, former New Yorker film critic, and how young artists can worship older artists almost religiously. It's also quite simply about a family. How this one lie pokes a crack in the life of a seemingly put-together liberal family. In general, I'm obsessed with questions of generational differences. How one generation is different from the last, how certain sensibilities and world-views get passed down or replaced, how parents teach their children and vice versa.
The second play I wrote with a specific space in mind - Ars Nova. For those who don't know Ars Nova, it's a sort of old-school vaudeville cabaret theater. Red velvet curtains, bar in the back, very intimate. I wanted to write a two-person play that used the performative aspect of the space and I came up with the idea of historical reenactments, turning the theater into a sort of museum. I'm deeply amused and intrigued by historical reenactments - this idea that if you put on a costume and talk in a hokey accent that history becomes present-tense. I based the museum on one of my favorite museums in New York - the Lower East Side Tenement Museum - so I could explore issues of immigration and personal reinvention. There's also a love story and a bunch of philosophical smack-downs about why we study history and how our generation is culturally bankrupt. I won't say any more.
Q: You're going to head to LA soon to write for Weeds. Are you excited? What kind of car are you going to buy? What are you scared of and what are you looking forward to about LA?
A: Yeah, they hired a scrappy kid to write for a sexy drug-dealing mom, go figure. I'm very excited. I really like the show and the questions they're investigating - moral gray areas, modern parenting, what's up with the whole Mexican drug scene. I'm also really excited about writing as part of a team, getting to see how other people think through plot and character. I don't have a car yet. I don't even know how one procures a car - I should probably look into that. In terms of what I'm afraid of, I'm scared of losing theater. The theater community is so geographically specific - once you leave New York, it just sort of disappears, or rather, you disappear from it.
In general though, I think TV is up to really good things right now. A lot of shows are taking on socially relevant stories in artful and deeply entertaining ways. Most importantly, they're finding their audiences. Theater can learn a lot from TV instead of just carping about its seductive qualities. I think we owe it to ourselves as storytellers to figure out where our audiences are going and why and to reevaluate what's specifically theatrical, what absolutely positively has to be on a stage and not anywhere else. Everyone says that, but still people keep writing psychological dramas that would be better off on a screen.
David Foster Wallace wrote an amazing essay about TV called "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." I urge everyone to check it out.
Q: You worked in the lit offices of Playwrights Horizons for quite a while. How did that inform your playwriting?
A: Working in a lit office, you realize literary managers aren't evil gate-keepers hellbent on quashing the hopes and dreams of aspiring playwrights via form letters. They're smart, thoughtful, caring people who spend countless hours reading scripts and doling out free dramaturgical advice. I found it very encouraging to learn that when a play gets read by a theater, it really gets read. A human being takes the time to grapple with it and figure out what the playwright is trying to accomplish. Not only, but working at a theater you learn that rejection isn't personal. A lot goes into curating a season; it's not simply "we like this play, we like this play, we don't like this..." which is often how the process appears from the other side.
At the same time, the job arms you with a descriptive vocabulary that can be detrimental to the creative side of your brain. You get very good at slotting plays into categories ("a talky, schematic issue play" "a self-consciously, meta-theatrical slim satire"). I found myself censuring myself before even trying out an idea. So it's an amazingly gratifying job and a great place to learn how to read a play, but as a playwright, you can't spend too much time in that position.
Q: Can you tell me what it was like to have a play in Humana? Had you been to Humana prior to that or was it your first time there?
A: Every playwright should go to Humana. Apply a million times until you get in. It's such a nurturing and empowering place to do theater; they treat writers like rockstars. I went there at 24 with my first play - I had never had a production before, never been to the festival - and they put my play on the mainstage in a 600-seat theater with a balcony. Sean Daniels, the director, turned our rehearsal space into a sort of kiddie romper room of experimentation; I ended up rewriting the ending about ten times. The script was definitely flawed, but the production made up for it in heart I think.
There's also something to be said for theater festivals. The energy, the variety, the drinking. It reminds you that your play isn't the only play that exists, that it's part of a larger thing called Theater. I saw the Civilians' show, Beautiful City, maybe five times. I saw Gina Gionfriddo's show twice.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: For most of my childhood I was convinced I never actually went to sleep. That I was the only person on the planet who didn't partake in this basic human activity. One day my parents showed me a picture of myself sleeping in the backseat of our car. It was pretty enlightening.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I'm really into theater collectives right now. Experimental companies taking on big, messy ideas with singular visions. Elevator Repair Service. The T.E.A.M. The National Theater of the United States of America. The Civilians. I just saw Sleep No More by the British theater company Punchdrunk, which was an experience. I'm convinced that the future success of theater lies in groups of people, not individuals. They're able to circumvent the slog of the development process and create theater on their own terms. They're also coming up with the some of the most gutsy and powerful material right now, not to mention work that is visually arresting and super fun to watch.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be ambitious - aim high, overshoot, mess up, try again. Theater needs bold storytellers right now. We need thoughtful people taking on big questions. With every bad play that gets produced, theater dies a little. We become a little more irrelevant. So be hard on yourself. Write every play like it's your last. If you're writing about five loafers on a couch, throw it out. Look outside yourself. Ask questions. Write the conversations you want to be having with society at large. Think visually, not just about words on a page. Think about the audience. Entertain them, respect them, challenge them. Don't write a play you know has already been written. Read a million books. Go on crazy adventures. Take strange jobs. Fall in love with older writers and then try to write better than them. Fall in love with theater and then write a play that redefines what theater is.
Q: Any plugs?
A: Rent a car this winter and go see Elevator Repair's Gatz at A.R.T. - see the marathon six hour version, don't split it up. I saw Gatz last year in Troy, New York and it was the single-most thrilling piece of theater I have ever seen.