Oct 22, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 396: Neena Beber
Miami, Florida. Still Home.
New York City. Current can’t ever really replace Home, though it has been a long slog of time.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Trying to finish a bunch of plays I started a while back. I have a very poor sense of time which is why I need theatre to contain it for me.
Q: How has your TV writing affected your playwriting, if it has?
A: When I first started writing for TV, my writing for theatre got a little stranger. I didn't want to write anything that resembled the TV writing at all. That meant no naturalistic dialogue, no banter, no jokey jokes, no straightforward narrative. I wanted there to be at least one metaphorical thread in my theatre work, even better three or four or five. I wanted sideways sprawl and characters who neither learn nor grow. I became really interested in the space of the theatre, the live event, the meta-reality of theatre itself -- what it means to be in a room with people, real people, crossing in time and space with you.
Now I think TV and film have helped me really think about craft and story and economy and precision, and theatre has helped me see that you don’t need to be afraid to bring your voice and your singular oddness and peculiar humor to the screen big or small. I am not at this point concerned with one being too this and the other being too that.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My mom decided it would be fun for us to learn a new word a day. This was before those word-a-day calendars. She was a real wordsmith, an ace at Scrabble and an amazing, charming storyteller. She really understood people and what made them tick. She had this ability to turn the ordinary stuff of life into something magical. Nothing was lost on her. And she appreciated language, words. So I remember sitting on our back porch getting our words. The first word was procrastination. See, I took piano lessons but would only practice when we were heading out the door. When the recital came, I had no idea what I was doing. I made up a tune on the spot. I was winging it, and I thought I pulled it off because no one said anything; of course, no one knew what to say! It was both comical and dreadful at the same time. Comical and dreadful is a heady combination. I think at some level even then, I knew I was just banging keys. I really was planning to figure it out later -- and not just later, but after, which some might say is really too late.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: No second guessing from anyone about anything.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Growing up my theatrical hero was Mad Guy Mogi, my great uncle, a silent film actor, magician, lion tamer, shrunken head seller, lentil soup eater, professional worrier, eccentric dancer, kosher-keeper. The few times I met him, he was wearing a top hat, a cape, and a giant, gnarled monster hand that he would transform to a normal hand before your very eyes, as he reached to shake yours. He was my hero, or really my meta-hero, because my mom was my hero who conveyed who he was to me, valued who he was, celebrated him in all his eccentricities.
Of course I also have my long list of names, people who come to me when I need them most. Some of them are ghosts sitting on my shoulder; too many of them are ghosts for me now. They taught me. They teach me. They raise the bar.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I think it is always exciting to have people performing live in a room using their time and energy to delight us. It’s like we’re all kings and queens. I love the attempt at communication that I may not completely understand, not yet anyway. I want to walk a mile in your shoes even if they don’t fit.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Start your own thing and go forth fearlessly. Remind older playwrights why.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I prefer to go bald.