Thursday, March 04, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 126: Alena Smith
Hometown: Millbrook, NY
Current Town: Brooklyn
Q: Tell me about It Or Her and Plucker, both being presented right now.
A: PLUCKER is my attempt to write an old-fashioned farce about a new generation. Farce has traditionally been a dramatic form used to talk about the failures of marriage and fidelity; to make fun of society’s inability to live up to its own strict moral codes. (For example, I read a Feydeau play where a man hypnotizes his wife to prevent her from figuring out that he’s cheating on her.) Yet today, we (at least, those in my demographic) live in a culture where these codes are not so clear: we no longer insist upon marriage before sex or before living together; we do not prohibit same-sex love affairs; and, in many ways, we don’t make much of a distinction anymore between the man’s role and the woman’s role in a heterosexual union. When so many of the traditional barriers to happiness have been lifted, or decayed to a point of irrelevance, what are the new sources of conflict that might generate the antic dramaturgy of a farce? (What I found, of course, is that it’s the very absence of strict rules and codes that makes committed relationships today so difficult to sustain.) I should also mention that PLUCKER involves a toy piano, bedbugs, a truth serum, a dinner party, and a parrot with a severe anxiety disorder.
IT OR HER is a play I originally conceived with my former theater company Dead Genius Productions, and it was first performed by DGP in the 2007 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Now the play is getting a brand-new production with a totally different team of artists: an actor, director, and group of designers, all of whom I went to grad school with at Yale. A solo show for one man, one box, and a bunch of little toys, IT OR HER is a kind of minimalist thriller. It’s the story of an obsessive collector who has locked himself up in his basement with his weird coterie of female figurines. Like a mad scientist, he plays with his objects, fervently searching for what he calls their “ultimate arrangement” – hoping to discover this mysterious pattern before his hideout is invaded, and his own dark secret is revealed. (A friend described this show as a Pinteresque episode of Law and Order, and I’d be happy with that!)
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m about to start working on a new play, my first play written for an all-male cast. All I can say right now is that there's going to be a sweat lodge.
Q: Who is in the Public's Emerging Writer group right now? You all are having readings Mondays in March and April.
A: The Public Emerging Writers Group is an incredible circle of talented, passionate, and diverse playwrights. All of their plays are fantastic and I believe great things lie in the future for everyone in the group! I recommend coming to see any of the remaining readings in our Spotlight Series, now through April.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: In 1991, when I was eleven years old, I saw an ad in the back of the New York Times Magazine for a summer program called Peace Child where you could go to England and make a musical about world peace with young people of many nations. I insisted that my parents sign me up, and off I went to Eastbourne (which is kind of like the Miami of England, not in that there are exciting clubs and beaches but in that there are mostly retired old people living there), where I created and performed a musical along with kids from Israel, Jordan, Bulgaria, etc., etc., that focused mainly on the Middle East and the military industrial complex. We had an enormous audience of old British people weeping as we enacted a scene where all the world’s children die in a nuclear explosion.
Also while I was there I got kicked out of my host family house because I helped their daughter dye her hair red and we got hair dye all over their bathroom. I then got to live in the flat with all the older counselors which was way more fun anyway. I think that was when I started drinking coffee.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Any kind that allows the actors to give big, hungry, bold, hilarious, glittering performances. And it’s even better if this is happening in a play or performance that somehow speaks directly to the concerns of how we live in the world today.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t try to copy anyone or “follow the rules.” There are no rules. Write the most dangerous work that you can. And say yes to pretty much everything.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, my fellow Emerging Writers Group member, just had his wonderful play NEIGHBORS extended at the Public – go see it if you can!
And I’d like to make a plug for all theater people to go see more dance and music. I think it would be good for us!