Sunday, November 07, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 279: Alexis Clements

Alexis Clements

Hometown:  Not applicable. I’m an Army brat, so I call the place I’m living home. But I did spend most of my childhood at a couple different addresses in Northern Virginia, in the suburbs outside Washington, DC.

Current Town:  Brooklyn, NY

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’ve got a couple of projects cooking at the moment. First and foremost, I’m working on building a tour of my performance piece Conversation, which I premiered at this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival. We had a great run there and I’m working on bringing it around to a few different cities in 2011. It’s written and performed by me, and it’s about a woman who is working on developing a theory of conversation in which each person gets exactly what they want from the other person. The main character begins to present this theory to the audience, but things start to go awry very quickly. The Philadelphia audience really responded to it, so I’m looking forward to bringing it to other spots and seeing how different audiences react to it.

I’m also continuing to develop Spitting Against the Wind, a piece I presented early iterations of at Dixon Place and the Brooklyn Arts Exchange. It’s a performance piece in which I play the role of Benjamin Franklin, who has, it turns out, been alive ever since the 1790s, and spent most of the past 200 years or so trekking across Asia. The story is a challenge to the myths that have grown up around Franklin and an interrogation of why we want to believe those myths. It’s also a piece that’s stretching me artistically—it’s got storytelling, movement, and an aesthetic that’s gonna push me in some new directions.

And early next year I’ll be doing a dog-sledding trip in Norway, in the style of Roald Amundsen’s 1910 trek to Antarctica. Yes, seriously. I can’t quite believe it myself. But it’s all part of the research for a show I’m working on, Terra Incognita, about an Antarctic cartographer.

So, I’ve got my hands full, but with good things, I think.

Q:  Tell me about Out of Time & Place.

A:  Out of Time & Place is a two-volume anthology of plays written by 11 members of the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, myself included. The Women’s Project published the books late this summer and I edited them, along with the playwright Christine Evans. The books have this dead-on introduction by Theresa Rebeck, then there are essays preceding each play giving you a sense of the context out of which each grew. But the meat of the books is the 11 plays by 11 very different, very strong voices. There’s quite a range of writing, from a piece challenging notions of identity among a group of six Muslim women living in Cape Town, written by the London-based South African writer Nadia Davids; to the play that won this year’s NY Innovative Theater Award for Outstanding Full Length Script—Crystal Skillman’s The Vigil or The Guided Cradle; to my own piece, Conversation. I’m pretty proud of these books and am glad to be able to offer them to the theater community.

It’s a project that grew out of the discussions that started gaining steam in the last couple years around the question of how to achieve gender parity in the theater. Julia Jordan, Sarah Schulman and Anna Zigler hosted a couple of town halls on the subject in 2008 and 2009, and then the group 50/50 in 2020, whose goal is to achieve gender parity by the year 2020, had their first meeting in the second half of 2009. So, I was going to these meetings, and listening to the dismal statistics being quoted and some of the unfortunate stories being told, and I started asking some questions of myself. I was thinking about what my experience was, as a playwright and also as someone who regularly writes about theater and performance art for print publications here in New York. I also started to look further back, to my experience as a young person, falling in love with theater and performance art in high school and college.

As I was thinking about those first experiences of theater, I remembered this small bookshelf of plays in the green room of the theater in my high school, the first place I ever picked up an actual play script. And though my memory does not have the crispness of Google’s Streetview, I can say with some certainty that pretty much all of the plays on that shelf were by white European and American men. Things changed a bit in college, when the required texts started to include the occasional woman and minority writer, but it was still rare to be in a classroom where contemporary work by woman and minorities was being discussed..

I connected those experiences with comments being made at those teaching in universities who were saying that they couldn’t find published contemporary work by women to put in front of their students. And, even more perturbing, the assertion by some people working in theater that there simply weren’t plays written by women being offered to them for production. All of this, for me, pointed clearly to a need for publication, to fill the gaps and to counter the recurring false assertions by disingenuous (at best) individuals who would prefer that the world believes that women aren’t writing strong work for the stage (let alone any other medium).

And, to be honest, I really admired these women that I shared two years with in the Women’s Project Lab program. They are a pretty remarkable group. I wanted to find a way to honor that group, and this was a great way to do that while also addressing the above goals.

I should also mention that for those of you in the New York City area, there’s going to be a book launch event at the Drama Book Shop on Dec. 3 from 5-7. Eight of the writers featured in the books will be on hand, presenting excerpts from their work and also telling the stories behind their plays. Learn more here:

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Oh, man. That is a really tough question. Makes me wonder what my parents would answer if someone asked them. I have the notion to call them right now and ask them, but unfortunately, it’s quite late as I’m answering these questions, so it’ll have to wait. I know that my father recently reminded me that I’ve been putting on shows since I was wee little thing, so that’s clearly been part of who I am for as long as I’ve been.

In lieu of a specific tale, I’ll give you instead an image of me as a young child that I think speaks volumes.

We rented this one house, when we first moved to Northern Virginia, on Amherst Avenue. I must have been about five years old at the time, kindergarten and first grade—the best time for kids, I think, or at least it was for me, besides that one preschool in Florida, but that’s another story. Anyhow, there are all sorts of memories that I have from that house, but one of the things that came to mind when thinking of your question is the sun porch off the side of the house where my mother had her big old roll-top desk pushed up against the wall and she used to sit for hours sorting out bills and all manner of other things. She had a calculator that she would type away at faster than I could ever imagine typing, and neat piles of papers and forms, and envelopes and paper clips and pens and all these important looking things.

And then, over in one corner of the sun porch, facing the opposite direction, was a little kid-sized table and chair, where I carefully created my own piles of important looking things. I would get my teachers to give me the extra worksheets they had left over after everyone in the class had gotten their copies and I would also collect piles of blank paper or blank forms that needed filling out. And so my mom would sit up there at her big roll-top desk doing her work, and I would sit down at my little desk in the corner, doing my own work—checking boxes on lengthy forms and solving addition and subtraction problems and jotting down ideas I had. And all the while the sun would be streaming in on us through the jalousie windows, and the birds would be stealing the cherries from the neighbor’s cherry tree near the fence in the backyard, and the crabapples would be making a mess in the front yard, and cars would be driving up and down the Avenue. And then my brother would come home, or my dad would come home, and work time would be over. But for some portion of many of the days we lived in that house, my mom and I would sit and do our work together on the sun porch—me doing my best and most earnest imitation of productivity.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  To include more women and minorities in all arenas of professional theater-making.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Laurie Anderson, Robert LePage, Melanie Joseph and The Foundry Theatre, David Greenspan, Peggie Shaw, Penny Arcade, Holly Hughes, Spalding Gray, Martha Clarke, Luigi Pirandello, Tennessee Williams…I could go on.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I’m pretty partial to experimental work and work that bleeds across genres, particularly stuff that takes some of its cues from the visual arts tradition of performance art. But I also love a good story and I love a great performer, regardless of the category of theater it is.

When it comes down to it, though, the thing that makes a live performance work for me is the sense of magic it contains. Performance always involves smoke and mirrors, to some extent, and that’s what makes it amazing and so powerful when it works. When you walk into the theater you know you’re going to be deceived. You’ve paid for the privilege of it. There’s nothing worse than a show where nothing is left to the imagination, where every detail is painstakingly rendered, where my role as an audience member is entirely passive—there are plenty of other mediums I could turn to for that.

Even in the most punishing performance art, there’s a contract established between the performer and the audience that is typically predicated on creating a new world of possibility inside the performance space for some period of time. That is a powerful agreement, and an amazing opportunity to rewrite the rules of the known world, if only temporarily. And while many other art forms can create new worlds, they don’t have to manufacture it for you live, in real-time, and make you not only want to believe what’s happening, but also let yourself into that world to await an unknown result.

To me that represents a kind of magic that can only be achieved in performance. Some of the most satisfying performance pieces I’ve ever seen I’ve walked away wondering how it was possible, how they did what they did, or what exactly it was that just happened to me.

So deceive me. I asked for it.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Get to know your colleagues. As much as writing is a solo sport for most of us, performance is most assuredly a team sport. The team sport mentality didn’t come naturally to me when I first began writing, but by participating in programs like the Playwrights Forum in Washington, DC, and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship program, and the Women’s Project Lab, I started to have a sense that I had colleagues, and that I didn’t always have to view myself as in competition with them, which can be a difficult thing when you’re an ambitious young writer.

And beyond that, when you go see shows, keep an eye out for designers whose work you admire, directors who fire you up, actors who you love. You need a team and you should know who you want on it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The most important plug at the moment is for everyone to have a look at Out of Time & Place. It’s meant to be, not only a great collection of writing for performance, but also a resource for professors looking for contemporary work to teach in the classroom, particularly contemporary work by women. It’s also a fantastic source of material for actors seeking new monologues and scenes.

Get copies and learn more about the books at

You can also keep up with the other projects I’m working on at (where you can also sign up for my mailing list).

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