May 15, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 170: Emily DeVoti
Hometown: Sheffield, Massachusetts
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me please about your play currently running at New Georges.
A: It runs through May 22nd! The play is called MILK, and it’s set on a dairy farm in rural Massachusetts in 1984, on the cusp of Reagan’s second election. It’s about a couple about to lose their family farm, when a wealthy NYC businessman offers them an obscene amount of money for the right to bring his family there and “teach them values.” It’s about the courage to deal with change. It’s about the economic reality beneath our shifting American landscape. It’s about Blondie, Stan Smiths, young love, 80s music, and the role of comedy in our lives. Something I’ve learned from the play is that so many people have associations with farms, usually from their childhoods, and foster nostalgia for them. So, as it is for me, the nostalgia for a rural landscape blends nicely with nostalgia for youth and the pain of reinventing oneself, growing up in order to survive. My boyfriend (Joe Roland, another playwright) brought one of his adult education students to the play, and afterwards the student said it reminded him of growing up in Honduras! (His grandmother had a farm.) I love discovering there is universality there.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I just finished a re-write of my play DIRT, my play about a Pre-Raphaelite poet and his 18 year secret, cross-class love affair with a maid of all work. The poet also took photos of working class women, and navigated his unconsummated relationship with his lover in a way clearly ringing of a dirt fetish. Last spring, I had a reading of it at The National Theater in London—the wonderful director Max Stafford-Clark (Out of Joint Theater, former Artistic Director of The Royal Court) read it and helped to bring me over there. It was a great experience and hearing the play in London, where it takes place, helped me to see the story anew and dive in and make the final touches on the play. I’m also just starting a commission from Shakespeare and Company (Lenox, MA) and Colorado Shakespeare Festival. In loose affiliation with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, they’re commissioning an American History Cycle of plays, to try to create for America what Shakespeare created for England: a way to preserve and tell the story of our past through our own political and subjective lens. On another note, I’m also writing a screenplay in collaboration with a director—it’s about a very modern romantic love quadrangle.
Q: You're one of the editors of the theater section in the Brooklyn Rail. How has that affected your perspective on writing or theater?
A: I started The Brooklyn Rail twelve years ago with friends during my first year as a grad student at NYU/Tisch in the dramatic writing program (where I got my MFA). At first, we didn’t cover theater. I actually prefer to write about life: political angles of the ordinary, essays. However, after a few years, I saw an opportunity to create a theater section as a place where we don’t write criticism—I actually don’t believe in criticism, as it is only one person’s point of view and its power over public perception is dangerous—but where I could create a space for writers to speak with one another in public. So, we do preview pieces, interviews, and—my pet project—In Dialogue, a column where a playwright reads the work of a peer, interviews her/him, and then writes an essay incorporating text from that writer’s work. What the Rail did for me is give me the opportunity to be generous with my peers. There are so few opportunities in theater that it can make us competitive with one another, but I think that we are stronger when we are supportive of each other.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was a kid, I liked to lock myself in the trunk of the family car, then jimmy the lock to try to get myself out. Sometimes, my family wouldn’t know I was in there, and once they even took off with me locked in there. I like dark places. I like to listen to people and sounds when they don’t know I’m there. I like to close my eyes and observe the world. I also like getting out of tricky places, so with my writing I sometimes set up tricky situations, then love the challenge of finding my way out.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Access. I think that downtown theater, and new plays, have the power to reach people outside of the theater community. But I feel that because of lack of funds for advertising, and audiences’ lack of awareness below the belt of 42nd street, that our conversations are kept small. Our conversations could be much larger, and I would love to see that happen.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Caryl Churchill is the writer who has touched me most profoundly. When I first read her work, it sparked recognition in me. Partly because the roles of women are so vibrant, bold and unsentimental. And also because of how she explores history. In her writing, history is a vivid place in direct relationship to our present times. It’s not a distant object to be held up and ogled. Her plays dig into it and attack it with surprising anachronisms. Most of my plays are historical works, too, but they are not costume dramas. I feel that history is a greatly unexplored element of American theater and life. “We” (as a general American populace; and I know I’d being reductive here) don’t want to look back. We want to look forward and live “in the moment,” yet when we do look at history, we are surprisingly sentimental. But actually, we live in history every moment—it informs what we do, who we are and who we can become. I also have been very influenced by Tony Kushner as an example of how a writer can be at once highly political and intellectual and yet deeply hilarious and accessible; forging a certain kind of model I can strive to live up to. Tony also read and was supportive of my work when I was just starting out, and I will always admire and learn from his generosity.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Honest theater. And by that, I don’t mean realism, necessarily. Theater that comes from something lived, something that you can recognize that percolates up through whatever medium the story is told in. I can’t know it until I hear it. But when I do, it’s very exciting. I also am a real believer in comedy—not the genre of comedy, but comedic touches—I believe that as comedy and tragedy are twin sides of each other, good comedy has deep roots of hard truths in it.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Associate yourself with a theater company you admire—volunteer, help out, become a friend. Don’t feel obliged to see theater that you think is hip and cool, and to be influenced in that direction. See the shows that you think you will like and want to be able to write, but also be open to surprises. Don’t try to write like writers who are already successful. Find and honor your own voice and vision.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks! It’s running in June, and it’s their last year at the OHIO Theater. Anne Washburn’s play THE SMALL is awesome, funny and dark; her voice is always brilliant. And Kate E. Ryan’s DOT should also be great. Also, Madeleine George’s wonderful play ZERO HOUR, which will be produced by 13P June 22-July 11.