May 9, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 449: Jennie Contuzzi
Hometown: Belle Mead, NJ
Current Town: Astoria, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A play I've been working on for nearly three years, BODY LANGUAGE, has just gone into rehearsal, so I've been spending a lot of time getting that script into the best place it can be. I'm also trying to get my head around a new play where the main character journeys to a commune to try and escape her problems, only to discover the key to healing is to face herself and her past. I actually traveled out to a Nevada commune last summer with a friend to do some research and it was really fascinating-nothing at all like what I expected.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Writer's groups, readings, and workshops are all wonderful tools for a writer, but I don't think you can really know your play until you see it in production. Financial constraints really limit the amount of risk theater companies can take on new writers, and I know many talented people who have had reading after reading all over the country and still have not had an actual production. The reason BODY LANGUAGE is being produced right now is because The Active Theater, and especially artistic director Nathaniel Shaw, took a real risk on an unknown writer (me). I had absolutely no connection to the group until Nathaniel read a skeletal version of the play, saw something in it that he liked, and made a commitment to it. When I say skeletal, I really mean it-I think the draft he read was about 1/4 the size of what it is now. And yes, we spent a lot time developing the play, but it was always, from the first meeting, with the understanding that if I did the work, the play would be produced. It makes a huge difference, knowing someone is interested in you in that way. There are other smaller companies who have a similar focus, but I'd love for bigger theaters to embrace new writers on their main stages. It's wonderful that these large companies sponsor writers groups and create programs for new writers, but when you look at what's actually being produced, and you notice there's no overlap between the work and writers they are "developing" and the work and writers they are producing, that's a problem.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I'm a big fan of the unsung heroes-the stage managers, techies, production managers, rehearsal studio staff, ushers, box office staff-the people who make the entire magical process run smoothly, efficiently, and comfortably for the rest of us-and who make our audiences feel comfortable so they can more fully absorb what we're trying to say. My professors at the New School for Drama-all professional people who choose to take time from their own writing schedules to help other writers find their voices. And Stephen Adly Guirgis. Love him.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The darker the better. I love Mark Schultz's work for that reason. I like really sparse, focused work as well. How much you can say without actually having to say anything.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Try not to compare your successes or failures to those of other writers you know. It's ultimately just a huge waste of energy. Focus on your own work and don't let the speed with which success comes to you be a measure of your talent or the potential longevity of your career.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Did I mention the upcoming production of my play BODY LANGUAGE? It's dark, angsty, and occasionally very funny. May 25th-June 10th at the Workshop Theater. Please visit www.theactivetheater.com for more information about the play and this up-and-coming company of artists.