Nov 27, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 289: Jen Silverman
Hometown: I was born in Simsbury, CT & went to high school there later. Between being born and being officially educated, I lived in Europe, Asia, and Scandinavia, returning to Simsbury from time to time to learn how to be American. Let me know if it paid off.
Current Town: Iowa City, Iowa. Finishing up my MFA at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A few different things, all at once, including trying to type this, pack a suitcase, make a sandwich, and drink a mason jar full of coffee without spilling it everywhere. Oh, you mean theatre?
I’m working on a final draft of my play “Gilgamesh’s Game” that I workshopped at Seven Devils Playwrights Conference this summer (playwrights, these people are gold, apply!), and on a second draft of a new play called “Still,” which came from a series of conversations with writer and professor Lisa Heineman about stillbirth and homebirth. Until this project I’d never thought much about the kind of reverberations (both personal and political) that the loss of a newborn sends through a family and a community. Lisa is currently working on a book about her experience of stillbirth, and our conversations have been quite a learning experience for me as a person and also as a writer—how to interrogate questions of loss, choice, and community in a way that is new and fresh while also being honest.
I’m also starting work on a new play for which I got a research grant this summer. As a kid I lived in Tokyo for a bit, then after undergrad I moved back to live in the rural south, in Okayama. I’ve been back to Japan every year since I moved away from Okayama, and this past summer I came back specifically to conduct interviews in the small but vibrant community of South Africans living and working in Japan. Many of the interviews have to do with their reasons for coming to Japan, the lives they’ve created there, the ones they’ve left behind, and the intricate balancing act of positioning themselves between worlds.
The impetus for the research and the play came from conversations I’ve had for the past four years with my close friend, South African photographer and writer Marilu Snyders. In some ways this project is a continuation of the conversations we started in 2006 when we were kicking around the mountains of Okayama together, drinking terrible vending-machine coffee and talking about identity, culture, place, roots.
Marilu and a number of other friends have been telling me that incredible things are happening in South Africa right now—musically, artistically, in terms of creativity and self-expression, despite (or in response to) violence and poverty and political corruption. So for them there’s this thing of, “Do I have the responsibility to go back and be part of that? Or do I want to stay in this life I’ve built for myself here?” And for me—I feel like I’ve spent maybe 95% of my adult life asking myself that specific question: Do I stay or do I go, where do I belong, how does the life I’m building in this particular country/ state fit into the one I left and the one I’m moving toward. I have a complicated relationship with my nationality—as, perhaps, do most American artists—and embedded in that are questions about my responsibility to America as an artist, as a citizen, as someone who has had ample opportunities to cut ties and run, but keeps coming back.
Which is all to say: I’m starting work on the first draft of the play now. It feels harder to write and larger than almost anything I’ve worked on recently. Which means I’m looking forward to it.
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 was homeschooled until high school, which meant that upon completing the requisite lessons in the morning, I spent a lot of afternoons running around the streets of various towns, cities, and countries, improving my language skills by talking to strangers. Almost without fail, they would ask if I was cutting school, and I’d explain that I was homeschooled, and then all hell would break loose. They’d want to know if I was locked in the basement every morning with stale bread and Bible verses, if my parents believed in electricity, and if they needed to call the cops to rescue me. Some of the more enterprising ones (particularly in English-speaking countries, and almost invariably in the US) would administer impromptu reading tests, or assign me math problems. Their shock at my ability to read and do math was always a mixture of gratifying and insulting. As a kid I became very stubborn about knowing how to do things that I knew I wasn’t expected to know how to do.
I still find moments as an adult in which I recognize this. When I first moved to Okayama I started training martial arts there. The moment that clinched my absolute determination to train was the moment in which a group of extremely well-intentioned town ladies asked me if I wouldn’t rather learn how to arrange flowers, as young women aren’t conditioned to be able to fight. (I said No thank you, I'd rather fight, and for a precarious moment we all balanced on the edge of an international incident.)
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: More affordable for audiences. While lucrative enough to sustain the lives of playwrights. Oops, that’s two.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Sarah Kane—I find her fearless and angry and hopeful, and I take comfort in seeing those things coexist in her work. Naomi Wallace, who taught me that politics onstage can be a visceral, personal, impact on flesh. Caryl Churchill, Jose Rivera, Martin McDonagh. Sherry Kramer, who has been a wonderful and generous teacher. The class about to graduate from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop: Kevin Artigue, Jess Foster, Andrew Saito, and dramaturg Christine Scarfuto—all four have had a deep impact on my work and my hopes for theatre over the past almost-three years. Finally, the novelist Haruki Murakami and the film directors Takashi Miike and Wong Kar-Wei have had a huge influence on what I find compelling, beautiful and exciting.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre of hunger & desire. Theatre that tells driving difficult stories. Theatre that is visceral, that leaves bruises—you don’t walk out the way you walked in. Theatre of fluid lines and easily crossed boundaries— multilingual, multi-national, multi-mythic. Anything that surprises me, that plays with or complicates its structure in a way that feeds its content. Theatre that feels like a shared secret.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be bold. Write all the plays you’re scared to write because you think they’ll cause trouble or offend people. BUT: take responsibility for your choices—don’t be provocative because it’s stylish, be provocative in response to something, to interrogate something, to accomplish something.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you should not write genders, ethnicities, or cultures that are not your own—BUT (and this is a big BUT) do your research. Listen to authentic voices coming from the communities you’re trying to write. Let those voices tell you when you’re offbase. Make sure at all moments that you are writing with integrity and not clinging to a preconceived story you want to tell. The minute you write outside of your identity, it isn’t about you anymore, it’s about a responsibility you have to the community you’re portraying.
Finally, advocate for each other. We’re in this crazy world together. That pretty much makes us family.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Check out Counterpoint Theatre Co (counterpointtheatre.org/), a new international US/UK group based out of New York. They just produced a short play of mine called “Love In the Time of Dolores” in their festival called What’s Love Got To Do With It?—my play was about cannibalism, as one might expect. Also, I have a reading of a new full-length play coming up March 21 with id Theatre’s NYC Sit In reading series (http://www.idtheater.org/). And if you're in New Mexico, check out FUSION Theatre Co (http://fusionabq.com/)— they've been a creative home for me for some time, and I've been in residence there on and off since 2008, developing a trilogy of plays based in Albuquerque. Lastly, these are two groups that I love more than hot chocolate (with a splash of rum) on a cold winter day: larktheatre.org/ and http://newgeorges.org/
A last plug— My brother is a graphic designer and visual artist who's designed a number of posters for shows of mine. I've always found his work unusual, quirky, and inspiring. Check him out at csilverman.com/.