May 16, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 452: Rinne Groff
Hometown: Lutz and then Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: Tell me about Compulsion.
A: I wanted to respond simply with the Dickensian: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and then I went a looked up the full quotation from A Tale of Two Cities, and I was reminded how all the rest seemed apropos as well: “…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Compulsion is in many respects the play that means more to me than any other. I feel more connected to it than any other for reasons having to do with its content, the length of time I worked on it, its place in my career path, my collaborators, and more. But the journey was full of trial and heartbreak, and exuberant highs. And of course the journey continues now that it’s published and we’re figuring out where and when it will be performed next. There’s a chance it would be done in Israel which I am tremendously exited about.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Mostly what I'm working on right now is caring for a newborn boy child and my two sweet girls, and figuring out how to maximize sleep for everyone in our two bedroom apartment. I’m doing some shorter projects: writing a monologue for Center Stage’s 50th Anniversary celebration, writing for a group project having to do with food for Berkeley Rep the research for which has already been intensely exciting and eye-opening, and working with the magnificent Anne Washburne and Lucas Hnath on a commission for Actors Theater of Louisville which explores various aspects of the science of sleep in a three part structure. I'm also doing long-range planning for some future projects: a new play which has something to do with the 1911 fire on Coney Island which devastated an amusement park called Dreamland, and an action adventure screenplay which I’ve been toiling at for a while sort of as a lark and really enjoying when I do find the time. I’m also discussing some musical and television ideas with some friendly bigwigs, but with that stuff, you never know.
Q: Do you still work with Elevator Repair Service? What was that like?
A: I haven't performed in an ERS show since getting pregnant with my first child. The last show for which I was a part of the development was the earliest iteration of GATZ. I dream sometimes that I'll find a way back into that creative process again because it's a way of working and a group of people who are intensely dear to me, but it's hard for me to connect the dots to where I can imagine that happening. That’s because it's a very time-intensive development and rehearsal process (which is hard to juggle with kids) and also because the end-result performances are built to tour a great deal (which is also hard to juggle with kids). There are other moms and dads in the company so it's do-able. It's just tricky. I always think of my days with ERS as my coming-of-age as a playwright. It was within the company that I began to interrogate how shows were put together. It was all found and repurposed text and improvisation at that point so it wasn't dialogue-writing which of course is what many people think of as playwriting; but it was playwriting as in what a playWRIGHT does, figuring out how a play should be "wrought."
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 have a strong memory of being cast as one of the dwarves in the third grade production of SNOW WHITE. (If memory serves Leslie Verkauf was Snow White; I was terribly jealous.) Not only was I relegated to being a dwarf, but I was made to play Dopey, and as I have ears that stick out pretty far, the casting felt like the deepest critique on both the physical and talent level. I think I had two lines neither of which I remember but what I do I remember was this. Gina Campanella was playing a different dwarf—can’t remember now which one—and her one line followed a line that was very similar to the cue to my line. During one of the probably two rehearsals which we had I noted the similarity of the lines and it occured to me—I remember the thought occuring to me—that the potential for a cue mishap was present. And sure enough on the day of the performance—there was only to be one—Gina jumped her cue and said her line when it was really my “turn” and a split second of confusion ensued as the other actors now were off the script. In my memory, which is probably overly grandiose, I barely hesitated before saying my line and then when it came time for Gina’s line I sort of improvised something there and somehow everything kept moving forward. And it was so tremendously exciting to me. The play would have rolled along regardless—I mean who really cares what the Dwarves have to say?—but inside, I was reeling with power and accomplishment and wonder. I held a terrific secret that no one else noticed or cared about, or I should say they would have cared had the play come to a halt, but it didn’t, so they didn’t have to care.
But I knew, and it was precious to me. That show-must-go-on mentality and the complicated, quick-thinking dance that allows that to happen still embody the thrill of live theater for me. The fact that so many actors are so gifted at keeping the ball afloat is why I love actors so much.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Maria Irene Fornes, Bertolt Brecht, John Guare, Tony Kushner are writers who made me excited about writing in my earliest attempts to do so, and they are writers that I return to again and again.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Difficult, unsettling, complicated, surprising. Although I can also get really turned on by the craft of something simply but solidly built. It's like looking at a beautiful wooden table. I deeply admire the craft of a smooth, well-built table fashioned from nice wood. I like to touch a work like that.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I know that the trick for me is maintaining faith, and that's a hard one. I know community really helps. I know falling in love with other playwrights’ minds and visions, getting excited by their work, really helps. But I still struggle all the time with why am I doing this? When I teach, I can address certain elements of the craft that I consider to be helpful but in the end, each writer with a real future will find her own way. But in terms of the big picture—how to do this year after year—I feel like I seek as much advice as I could ever give.