Thursday, December 01, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 410: Jennie Berman Eng

Jennie Berman Eng

Current Town: Rockville, MD

Q:  Tell me about Exit Carolyn.

A:  Exit Carolyn is a play about two best friends (Julie & Lorna) whose friendship struggles after their third best friend (and roommate) dies unexpectedly. Julie and Lorna are forced to confront the possibility that they don't really function without their third, Carolyn. It's about grief and loss and how we're forced, usually in our 20's, to decide who we are going to be as adults, and which friends we're going to keep from childhood. When I tell all this to people they wince and I can see their brains rolling around the words, "Wow. That sounds depressing." But actually, it's a comedy!

I wrote the play after a friendship breakup, that still leaves me unsettled. There is so much available information about how to deal with the loss of a romantic relationship, but so little guidance written about breaking up with a friend.

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

A:  This tells it perfectly: I'm in 7th grade. I had worked out the exact timing and location of a between-class, hallway run-in with my junior high crush, Howard Kozloff. I had staked the school, found out his class schedule, calculated for locker location and potential traffic patterns in the science hall, where my scene was to go down. I had my cutest, newest outfit on. My bangs were sprayed and teased till they arched in a large, cascading wave over my head (it was the 80s). The bell rang and everything went according to plan. Howard had written me a funny note and I had spent the previous evening penning the perfect, wittiest comeback. I would see Howard, and say something like, "Oh, hey, I have a note for you," and then casually reach in and hand it to him. He'd smile and say, "Cool. I'll read it in Math." It would be a great beginning to our lifetime love affair.

The bell rang. I walked the requisite steps at the appropriate speed. And there he was. And there I was. Face to face. I smiled and said, "Oh, hey, I have a....", and reached into my backpack. I pulled out the note, but in shuffling the bag a large maxi-pad fell out of my bag and landed at Howard's feet. My humiliation was complete with the addition of an exploded strawberry yogurt that had soaked the pad and appeared to be, well, you know. Howard was both repulsed and, I think, a little angry, as if I was purposely throwing used pads at his feet in some kind of preteen menstruating political statement.

As a person and a playwright, I am always the girl with yogurt exploding in my backpack onto something important. I am always the jokester, trying to recover from some kind of faux pas, which means I'm most comfortable writing comedy. That feeling of being the outsider has stuck with me, and I tend to write characters who don't quite fit in or do what they're supposed to.

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

A:  Getting theaters to produce work by women.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Wendy Wasserstein. I saw The Heidi Chronicles when I was 16 at The Kennedy Center in DC, and instantly knew I wanted to be a writer. I also really love Neil Simon, even though it's definitely not "cool" to. But what's not to love about well-structured plays that make people laugh? Nicky Silver appeals to my sense of being weird. All that being said, I like new plays by living writers. I like theaters that produce new plays.

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

A:  What Wendy Wasserstein said to me (at an appearance she did at the JCC in Maryland), "Get yourself into an MFA program." It was the best thing I ever did.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see Exit Carolyn! It's funny! It's dark! It's weird and unexpected, and magical things happen that challenged my lighting designer! The actors are extraordinarily good, and the director, Adam Knight, is truly a gift to me from the theater gods.

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