Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 434: Dorothy Fortenberry



Dorothy Fortenberry

Hometown: Washington, DC

Current Town: Los Angeles

Q:  Tell me about Status Update.

A:  It's a play with songs about moving to a city you don't want to live in because your partner needs to be there, and becoming deeply addicted to the Internet. I wrote it a few months after moving to LA when I noticed that my most intense relationships were taking place over Facebook. It's also an Alice in Wonderland play, featuring Keyboard Cat, some pan-European houseguests, and several references to The Great Gatsby and the oeuvre of Kathy Acker.

Q:   What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm developing a play with Chalk Rep called Mommune about a minimum security facility for wayward mothers, set in the near future. Working with Chalk is fun because they produce site-specifically, so you get to write knowing that your actors can do things that would normally be off-limits. I also was just at the MacDowell Colony writing a play called Partners that I'll be workshopping with Page 73 this summer in New Haven about what the point of marriage is.


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 grew up as an only child in a 2-person family, so I spent a lot of time by myself and a lot of time with grownups. My favorite thing to do was just to listen. When my mom went to visit friends of hers in other cities, she'd bring me along, and I'd just stay at the dinner table, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, trusting that as the adults had more wine, the evening would get more interesting. And it usually did. Eventually, she would realize I was there, and she'd send me up to bed, but I would just listen from the top of the stairs. Or, I would search through all the books in her friends' guest room for passages about sex, which is how I speed-read Portnoy's Complaint at 13. Anyway, that hunger to find out how people tick and the notion that the answers can best be found in listening and literary sex scenes: still with me.

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

A:  I think, at the end of the day, all theater is community theater. It's local, it's hand-made, and the magic that is taking place is the same transformation that happens when your town mailman is Harold Hill. But I think currently, it really only feels like a community if you're a working theater artist -- I know that if I go see a play in New York or LA, I'm going to run into someone I know in the lobby, but if I were a lawyer or a gym teacher, I probably wouldn't. Which is all to say that I wish community were a bigger part of all levels of theater -- one of the main reasons I don't live in DC is that the wonderful theaters in town rarely produce local playwrights. Which seems nuts. Instead they bring in a cast and a director from New York to put on a play that was a hit in New York, and, well, it seems like that pretty effectively undermines half of what's interesting about theater to begin with.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Oh man, so many. When I was in high school, the school library was being renovated and they were going to throw out any book that hadn't been checked out in the last 5 years, and, to save the plays, I checked out and read their entire drama section, so 15-year-old me got super-into Charles Ludlam and Christopher Durang and Terrance McNally. Also, when I was in high school, a production of Baltimore Waltz at Studio Theatre blew my mind (I know I just undermined the point I made above, but it featured local actors, thank you). Escape from Happiness by George F. Walker will always be a touchstone to me of how "hilariously funny" and "deeply sad" are essentially the same thing. Lynne Nottage's Ruined is a play I study over and over again for its structure and bravery. The Rude Mechs' Method Gun was one of the best things I saw last year. Pig Iron, or course, Pig Iron. Chekov. And, while I'm not making a hierarchy, at the top has to go Caryl Churchill. Every play I've ever written is essentially my attempt to write Top Girls, as is every play I intend to write from here on out.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Scary theater. Theater that pokes at assumptions and comfort zones. Funny theater. Theater of big ideas. Theater that creates tension. Theater that makes me feel like I'm in good hands and then pulls the rug out from under me. Beautiful theater. Watching Pig Iron's Chekhov Lizard Brain thrilled me to the point of tears because it placed me inside the brain of someone in my family who no one in Pig Iron had ever met. And it had to be theater. It was completely and totally theater, it was precise and rehearsed and technically smart, and yet unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It scares me to think that I could have not taken the train in to New York that night and not seen that show. I would be less of a person for it.

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

A:  All right, so, keeping in mind that I, too, am just starting out, I pass along this advice from David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon, which is, to my mind, the most effective DIY guide to being a decent human being: "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." By all means worship theater, but try not to worship your own success or perceived lack thereof. That shit will eat you alive.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  My play Species Native to California has a reading this Sunday, March 18 at IAMA Theater Company in LA at 7pm (1017 N. Orange Dr) Status Update goes up at Center Rep in Walnut Creek, CA in October. Anything by fellow Titled Field members Jacob Padrón, Teresa Avia Lim, Michael Locher, Roberta Pereira, or Becca Wolff. Also, I am a giant fan of and so grateful to Jen Haley for starting the Playwrights' Union in LA. I wouldn't have written Status Update without their annual Writing Challenge, and I am about to share my first draft of Partners with the same folks at this year's Challenge weekend.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interview with an amazing playwright -- her passion and humility leap off the screen.

Anonymous said...

Dorothy is just amazing. I don't know if I've ever declared "YES!!!" out loud so many times in one article....