Aug 21, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 241: Jennifer Maisel
Hometown: East Rockaway, N.Y.
Current Town: Los Angeles
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m tinkering with OUT OF ORBIT – the play I workshopped at The Sundance Theatre Lab at Mass MoCA this year. It’s about a woman who is a scientist at JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab), working on the Mars Rover Expedition. When the rovers first landed on Mars the scientists and engineers lived on Mars Time (a martian day or sol is about 39 minutes longer than an earth day) and I became obsessed with the theatricality of these people living on Mars Time while their families were living on Earth Time. So the play focuses on the scientist and her teenage daughter who are going out of sync with each other and living on different planets. It’s very much about exploration on a personal and universal level and the yearning for connectivity in our increasingly disconnected world. This is one of those plays that I kept getting stuck in and going back to and getting stuck in again for years, and the Sundance Lab created a huge opening for me where I got through that stuck-ness and the play took off in an absolutely unexpected direction. I can’t believe I finally I have a full good draft – I was sure it was going to be one that was stuck in the drawer forever.
And I’m about to dig in to rewrite my newest piece, MATCH. It’s about altruistic kidney donors who are not necessarily so altruistic. It’s a journey into the underbelly of bartering for organs and explores the question of whether there really is any such thing as a gift with no strings attached.
Q: You also write TV and film. Do you have to mentally adjust when writing for the screen vs theater?
A: In the ideal world one feeds the other. A play’s form is more organic and writing one can be incredibly freeing after working in the stricter structure of television and film, but I also find that having practiced the craft of screenwriting makes my story and structure stronger for theatre. I am always about bringing a great depth of character to the screen work – and people in that arena credit my theatre background for it - but it may just be me, I like character, I need to know what makes people tick in order for a story to satisfy me.
Some of the mental adjustment comes in who I’m writing for – when the stars align and the film/tv writing is a paid gig there may be a huge number of cooks weighing in on the process who I must listen to because I’m doing it for them. In theatre I’m doing it for me – the cooks may weigh in but I have the final say.
I do tend to find myself yearning to work on one when I should be working on the other. A great form of procrastination.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I grew up in a picture perfect suburb where every house on our side of the street was the same. I came home one night when I was in high school and parked my mom’s station wagon, only to have to go back to the car when I realized I forgot to lock it. Then next morning – it was February and freezing - I went out to walk the dog and there was a dead man in our driveway. The rest of the day unfolded in a bizarre comedy of errors that culminated in my high school boyfriend telling me he loved me for the first time. I felt like I was trapped in a surreal nightmare where no-one stopped to think about this person whose life ended so sadly. We never could find out who he was - but for years after he came to me in my dreams, telling me if I hadn’t gone back to lock the car doors he would have been able to keep warm inside and would still be alive.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I’m on a council for the college I went to for undergraduate and it’s comprised mostly of these incredible professional women in very high-powered, well-compensated careers ( I’m one of their few artists). I got into a conversation with one woman, a corporate lawyer I believe, about the intricacies of theatre in Los Angeles and which of the smaller theatres she liked. It came up that the actors in showcases make about $7 a performance. She gasped in horror and said “why would they do it then?”. At the time I thought, oh she just doesn’t get that that’s what theatre is about – it’s not about the money. She doesn’t get the love for it. That we have to do it. It’s the only way to do it. But now her reaction resonates in me as a deeper response – one that opens up the door for questions about what is valued and how value is assigned. A long way of saying “the ability to make a living as a theatre artist”.
By the way, we never even got to how often playwrights are compensated with the phrase “you should just be honored we’re reading your play.”
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Maria Irene Fornes, Paula Vogel, Joseph Papp, Tom Stoppard, the late great Los Angeles actress Pamela Gordon who I am still writing parts for…
- and every single one of the playwrights that belong to the playwrights groups I’m part of - The Dogear Playwrights Collective (http://www.dogear.org), Playwrights Ink and Circle Rising (originally formed out of Paula Vogels ASK Theatre Projects Bootcamp). These playwrights are my greatest champions, I am their biggest fan. Their work always inspires me to better mine. Their support, friendship, honesty and challenges have gotten me through many dark periods in my life and in my writing.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre that’s written for the theatre – things that couldn’t be done anywhere else. Scenes that are impossible to stage staged. Those moments when the play crystalizes and you become enraptured.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Form a writers group. Stick by those people. They will be your constant.
Write for actors you know will speak your language as if it is their own.
Be open to someone doing it in a way that is absolutely not how you pictured it.
Q: Plugs, please:
KINGDOM OF IF – a short kids play written specifically for my fabulous 15 year old actress, commissioned by the Virginia Avenue Project this weekend in Los Angeles
THE LAST SEDER at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul
An upcoming reading of THERE OR HERE by KPCC and Pacific Stages and a reading of OUT OF ORBIT in Ensemble Studio Theatre – LA Project’s Winterfest, dates to be determined.