Jul 15, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 370: Monica Byrne
Hometown: Annville, Pennsylvania. A sweet little college town.
Current Town: Durham, North Carolina. A young artist’s paradise.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on What Every Girl Should Know, a commission for Little Green Pig. I'm taking an oblique approach to Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer--telling how her (badass) exploits inspire five young women imprisoned in a reformatory. They start making up an elaborate fantasy life where they travel the world, take lovers at will, and assassinate their enemies; all of which is a defense against their feelings of bleakness and helplessness. I keep trying to wrap my head around what life was like for women before birth control. They just didn't have any control over their bodies, short of total abstinence, which itself was not completely under their control. Who could blame them for wanting to escape? Or even die?
Recently, I was so inspired by the touring production of Black Watch, because it used so many media: gesture, song, music, dance, image, text. So What Every Girl Should Know will be very multi-channel in that way. We're going to shoot silent movies, hire a modern dance choreographer, and use music from the Los Angeles rock scene, circa 1989. I chose that genre because I started listening to Jane's Addiction right around age 13--the age of my characters--and their music conveys that adolescent feeling of urgency.
After that, I have collaborations with Jeff McIntyre and Lori Mannette, a screenplay about the first human mission to Mars, and whatever else I dream up in the meantime. I’m thrilled!
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 fourteen, I was cast in my high school’s production of Godspell. There was one moment during the production--lying flat on my back, staring up into a red light--when I would “check in” with myself every night: “How am I?” And every night the answer was, “I am so happy!” It was this conviction that steered me back to art after a decade-long detour into science. Research didn’t make me happy. Art did. To this day, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I wish the American theater community had a more international orientation. There is so much to learn from other cultures’ conceptions of performance. But, like with literature, it seems like we’re only in conversation with ourselves, and the signs of inbreeding are showing.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: First, one you all know: Martin McDonagh. When I read a play of his, I can tell he had a blast writing it. That's a quality I always look for. Is the author enjoying herself? I think it's a hugely underrated quality. And that doesn't mean the work is shallow; The Pillowman is very dark and profound. But yet, it's an absolute joy to watch. I love that paradox.
Second, two you probably don't know, but should: Jay O'Berski and Dana Marks. They're the Co-Directors of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, a small company in Durham that’s been doing white-hot theater for years. LGP brings in artists from every field--productions regularly feature singers, painters, dancers and filmmakers. They always take big, interesting risks--nontraditional spaces, new play commissions, sharp experimental scripts. Looking over their season is like being seated at an exotic buffet. Even if you don’t enjoy every dish, you will most assuredly enjoy trying every dish. And that’s the kind of theater that excites me: the kind that makes me scream and laugh and screw up my face in total bafflement. LGP does that to me every time.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: It’s really simple, which means it’s the hardest advice of all: write every day and read every day. I find so many playwrights are looking for silver bullets. But it really just comes down to practice--Art Tatum’s 30,000 hours, John and Paul in Hamburg, and all that.
Also, consume everything. Not just theater. I recently made a list of my top hundred artistic influences, and only four-and-a-half of them were playwrights. (The half, Aaron Sorkin, only sort of counts as a playwright.) Inspiration comes from everywhere, and it will only make your work richer.
A: My site is here, which also links to my blog. Come say hello!